About a year ago, a few days after an adventure-eating article I wrote appeared in these pages, I found myself being questioned by Han Chiang. To the best of my recollection, the conversation went like this:
Han: So, you write about eating intestines and balls, and you don’t call me?
Me: But it’s not on your menu; how should I know you cook that stuff?
Han: Well, you just have to ask. You like intestines? We do intestines. Wait five minutes.
Which is how I found myself sharing a plate of crisp-edged, deeply succulent pig intestines with Han by the bar at the Old City location of Han Dynasty, and texting my wife that I’d be home late with our order because I was—and this is a quote from the text—“eating pig ass at the bar.”
It was spectacular.
Han’s vision as a restaurateur is crystal clear, and if you don’t like the food that results from it—well, he’ll likely tell you, there are plenty of other Chinese restaurants in town that stand ready to serve you General Tso’s chicken. His latest adventure has been to rework the ever-evolving menus for his legendary spice dinners: first-Monday-of-the-month affairs that, for $25 per person, now run close to two hours and include 14 or 15 phenomenally exciting courses.
Han spent two months in China recently, eating his way through Sichuan, Shanghai and more, looking for renewed inspiration to bring back and apply to these menus. From the taste of it, those weeks were very well spent indeed. His March dinner progressed like so many meals at Han Dynasty do: starting off spicy and inconceivably flavorful and not really letting up until you get up from the table, stuffed and happy.
As has been well documented, Han’s food challenges the American notion that most spiciness is monolithic, varying mainly in its intensity first and flavor profile second. Here, however, the heat hits you differently with each dish, jolting a different part of your tongue or throat, the food equivalent of the soreness you feel after you visit the gym for the first time in years, the pleasant ache in muscles you never knew you had.
Whisper-thin threads of hand-pulled beef jerky were smoky and, just on the end, a hint sweet. Shredded tofu skin glistening with chili oil shimmered with a more searing heat. Diced fish, each cube cocooned in its crisp-fried shell, hit the back of the tongue with its accompanying dry peppers. “Stir fry triple threads,” crisp laces of flash-fried beef tangled atop the plate, sang with the vegetal heat of green peppers and the more sizzling throb of white pepper and Sichuan peppercorn. Ma la noodle, which Han described to our table as “numbing,” accomplished just that: The spice numbed the tongue, a sort of Novocaine-like deadening that somehow heightened the other flavors. “Weird taste chicken,” on the other hand, was more subtly spicy, and joined by sweet, sour and nutty notes lifted up with ginger and garlic.
Not everything here leaned heavily on spice heat. That’s the thing with the food at Han Dynasty: The flavors are beautifully pure on their own; that heat often serves to amplify them, but rarely does it overwhelm to the point of covering them up. Baby shrimp in scallion sauce, in hindsight, was almost soothing compared to what came after. Tien Jing style dumplings, slippery inside, crisped up and deep golden outside, were anchored by a tender blend of pork and scallion. Even the dumpling skins are made in-house for this one.
The only dish that caused some pushback at our table was the sweet mushroom soup dessert, a somewhat gelatinous, decidedly earthy bowlful that, as Han explained, he was not surprised was a tough sell for the American palate. (The red bean cakes went over much better.)
But that’s the other thing about Han Dynasty in general and these dinners in particular: There’s the element of eating out of your comfort zone, of putting yourself in the hands of someone who has a distinct vision, and whose reputation is largely built on its success and consistency. The menu, in fact, also serves as a comment card, and the instructions on it are as straightforward as you’ll ever see: “Please rate each dish on a 1-10 scale. 10 is very good, 1 is shitty.” That takes guts. And it takes real talent to create an experience for which that lower end of the spectrum is never an issue.
Han plans to continually change half the menu for the spice dinners, keeping the highest-scoring dishes and jettisoning the rest. He also has something grander in his sights for later this year: “I want to do a 50-course tasting, like an all- day kind of event,” he told me during a phone interview. “Like a big food orgy or something like that... I want to do a pairing with beer and wine... breakfast, lunch and dinner.” I’ll be back for it.
108 Chestnut St. 215.922.1888. handynasty.net
Cuisine type: Chinese.
Hours: Daily, 11:30am-10:15pm.
Price range: $4-$22.95.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014