Hunan Manor: Friends With Frog Benefits

It's rarely a good sign with a man is stationed outside of the restaurant trying to get passersby to take the menus he's handing out. Still, it was what was on those menus that enticed me to try Hunan Manor. And when I relayed to Gerry some of those menu items: "steamed pork elbow," "frog in spicy soup," "cumin flavored beef on toothpics," fragrant pig ears," and "numbing — and — hot chicken," it was very easy to entice him to join me as well.

Without taking a menu from the man outside, we went into the generic, harshly lit, restaurant where there were plenty of tables available. In the back a large party shared a big round table. There were bottles on the table; wine, alcohol, soft drinks and they were loudly toasting each other.

Along with the big table in the back, all the patrons were Asian, Chinese I assumed, maybe even Hunanese, but assuming is something I try not to do.

Gerry and I wanted to sample authentic Hunan cuisine, as opposed to authentic Szechuan, and after looking at the long menu, the restaurant would have been a natural for our Chow City group. The only problem were the prices; not outrageous by any means, but a bit too high for our miserly standards.

Gerry is a prodigious eater and I certainly can hold my own, but even by extending our gluttony to unheard of limits, the two of us alone couldn't do the menu justice.

Before we ordered, our waiter asked the obligatory "You like spicy?" question. Once we got that out of the way and affirmed our penchant for unadulterated Hunan, we proceeded to order.

Our first course was a soup to share; the Chinese yam with pork ribs. While we waited, a petite woman took the table next to us. She was familiar with the management and spoke fluently to them, not even bothering to look at the menu.

Our soup arrived. We used the provided spoons to sip the clear, yet fragrant broth delicately and then fished out the chunks of pork ribs and tore meat from bone with our teeth.
While we made quick work of the soup, two enormous platters arrived in front of the woman sitting next to us practically obscuring her. One was some sort of meat sautéed with peppers and chilies while the other was pale; tofu, maybe... or something else we knew not what.
We looked at each other and then back at the platters on the table next to ours. Gerry raised his eyebrows at me slyly and then nudged his empty plate a little closer to the platters in front of the woman.
I admit to being a Hunan novice; I had no clue what it was that she was about to dig into. And I also admit to abhorring those who stare longingly at others' dinners and then obtrude by pointing at it and asking, like I found myself doing: "May I inquire what that is?"

The woman next to us did not share my aversions. "Frog," she replied pleasantly, not put off at all by my sorry table manners.

We looked at the other platter in front of her.

"Potatoes," she said, indicating the pale mound of starch topped with strips of peppers.

Potatoes at a Chinese restaurant? We were now very intrigued and kept staring — longingly at the platters. Gerry pushed his empty plate a little closer to her, hoping that she would pick up on his no longer subtle movements.

Trying to help Gerry out, I forced an idiotic smile and said, "They certainly give you a lot of food."
She finally understood and smiled in return. "Yes, I can't eat it all," she said. "I'll bring the rest home to share with my friends."

His hopes dashed, Gerry inched his plate back in front of him and, thankfully, the smoked and preserved pork shoulder with dried tofu we ordered arrived along with a plate of sautéed water spinach and sliced fish, Hunan-style.

The pork, a combination bacon/belly-like texture with a distinctive smoky flavor meshed well with the tofu while the fish, tender and moist, dusted with dry chilies, had a low key, yet distinctive kick to it, though not as fiery as the type I've experienced at various Szechuan restaurants.

Finally the dark green water spinach; the roots crunchy and bitter and sautéed with garlic rounded out the perfect blend of flavors our three dishes had.

Our waiter brought our check and asked again if we liked hot, Hunan food.

We told him we liked it very much.

He shook his head. "Some don't like spicy," he said. "Some run away."

"They don't know what they're missing," Gerry said, blowing his nose loudly into a napkin as the heat from the food had worked its magic on his sinuses.

As we left the restaurant, I glanced back through the window. I could see the woman who was sitting next to us. She was texting someone on her phone; the mound of food in front of her had barely been touched.

"I wish my friends would share their frogs with me," I muttered.

"You just don't have the right friends," Gerry said. And then we both took menus from the man outside the restaurant and shoved them into our pockets before heading off.

Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: neckbones@fried_neckbones.