“You know what I look forward to most about the holidays,” I said. “January 3rd. Kids are back at school. And best of all, you start seeing dead Christmas trees on the street signaling the end of the holiday nightmare.”
“Yeah I love seeing that too,” Gerry said with glee. “$75 for a tree. Talk about a waste?”
“Happy f…ing New Year,” Zio spat. “What the f..k is there to be happy about. The world is ending for Christ’s sake!”
Zio, Gerry and I were huddled around a table near the door of Happy Hot Hunan, a restaurant the three of us decided to sample while the official food group took a December hiatus. And though there was a distinct draft coming from the front door, the sight of big bowls of food adorned with chili peppers gave us a warming sensation. We were the only non-Asians in the upper west side restaurant which was also reassuring.
After more griping about the holidays, we settled down to order from the impressively Hunan menu. There were frogs legs, plenty of intestines, tripe, pork feet, drunk chicken, smoked pork and even a General Tso’s sighting. Really, we had nothing to complain about.
“Should I get the hot and spicy pork belly or the hot and spicy pork intestine,” Gerry debated.
“If you ask me, I’d get the pork belly,” I offered.
“I’m not asking you,” he replied, Grinch-like, and ordered pork intestines, also known to Gerry, as chitterlings or chitlins.
“Pork intestines?” The waiter looked at Gerry questionably. “You want that?”
“I want that,” he said, tossing back his menu.
“Most don’t,” the waiter said with a smile, impressed that someone of Gerry’s ethnic origins would take on the challenge that is Hunan pork intestines.
Zio wanted ribs and pointed to a plate a lone diner was devouring at a table near ours. “Are those the spicy pork ribs with hot green pepper?”
The waiter shook his head. “They sweet and sour ribs. You want spicy pork ribs?”
“That’s what I want,” Zio said and the waiter scribbled down his order.
I figured I would order one of the “hot chili dishes” that, in this Hunan restaurant meant a meat or fish in what was described as a “hot creamy chili sauce.” I was intrigued by the idea of hot creamy chili so I veered from pork and chose the fish. Closing out our order we added a vegetable, stir fried Hunan mustard leaf, “to keep us regular,” as Zio made sure to point out.
First to arrive on our table was the fish. The chili sauce looked like any other Szechuan chili sauce; a deep red broth, dusted with dried red peppers and showered with fresh cilantro. I noticed no cream, however, and after sampling it there was a noticeable, silken, to use a tired food adjective, quality to the sauce. Creamy or not, the three of us were in agreement that the fish was properly lip numbing to meet our Hunan and/or Szechuan specifications.
Zio stared at his pork ribs when they were placed in front of him. “Hmmm they chopped them up,” he said with a bit of disappointment in his voice. The ribs were cut into inch-size pieces that you could only eat one or two at a time, careful not to swallow one whole. But the meat on them was tender and coated with a cumin-heavy, 5-spice sauce that was good enough to forget about the effort it took to eat them.
After gnawing through the donut like spheres of pork intestine, Gerry said, “I should have ordered the pork belly.” I sampled one and though the flavor was very good, my teeth were just not sharp enough to break through the rubbery consistency of the intestine. But Gerry’s teeth, sharpened by many battles with tough squid, ate the pork intestines happily.
While we ate, all the upcoming holiday madness was forgotten—at least for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until we were bombarded on the sidewalk after dinner with a Christmas carol coming from the open window of a double-parked car and a dollar store selling plastic green and red garlands and cheap chemically unsafe artificial trees that we were quickly reminded of the season.
“See you next year,” Gerry said to us as we parted ways.
“I can’t f..king wait,” Zio grumbled as we walked away from the happiness that was Happy Hot Hunan.
Happy Hot Hunan
969 Amsterdam Avenue