Han Dynasty

Han Chiang offers up 10 spicy sauces at his Old City restaurant.

By Adam Erace
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Mar. 16, 2010

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Dough boy: Han Chiang's dumplings in chili sauce bring the heat.

Photo by MICHAEL PERSICO

For all I’d heard about Han Chiang, a man as famous (or infamous) for his cantankerous nature as his food, I only managed to get one f-bomb out of him during dinner at his Old City restaurant, Han Dynasty. It happened sometime between the dumplings in scarlet chili oil and the dan dan noodles and, somewhat understandably, was in reference to the city dragging its feet on his liquor license.

“Fucking city. I’ve been drinking since I was 11,” Chiang boasted between sips of Bruery’s Orchard White. “They should give me one automatically.”

I wouldn’t call that excessive. Is there one among us who doesn’t curse City Hall now and again? But for what you’ll read about the slight, wiry Chiang, you’d think the guy would be caning customers and challenging Travolta in Pelham 123 in a how-many- times-can-you-say-motherfucker contest. The Chiang that served me at Han Dynasty was polite to the point of being demure.

He guided us through the menu of 10 sauce styles, decoding the 1-to-10 spice scorecard (10 being the hottest), explaining why this protein is better with that sauce, adding and subtracting dishes on his own accord. When I offered Chiang a glass of the Bruery ale I’d brought along—he’d asked about it—he accepted, then returned the favor by popping a bottle of Duchesse, one of my favorites. If this is abuse, I’m a masochist.

Dynasty devotees—older locations exist in Exton and Royersford—say once one attains regular status the kid gloves come off and the good-natured abuse goes on. Then I’d better brace myself; the Sichuan spice is like crack to this foodie.

The fire starts with a spark, in this case the seashell-shaped dumplings made fresh daily. The supple sesame-freckled pork-and-cabbage purses only earn a 4 on Chiang’s spice scale, but a red aurora of chili oil—neutral oil-infused with red pepper, nutmeg, star anise and other secrets—is doing its thing while you eat on blissfully, thinking, this isn’t hot at all. Halfway through, you’re feeling it. I’m feeling it. And it’s not uncomfortable by any measure. The heat was less angry assault, more plaid blankets and fireside brandies at your hunting estate in the English countryside. Warm, comforting.

Dan dan noodles, elastic and tangled as telephone wires beneath finely minced pork and preserved veggies, stoked the coals at a 6. Chiang tossed them tableside, surfacing the nutty sesame paste, soy sauce, peppercorn and chili oils lurking on the bottom of the bowl. Radiant heat spread north, south, east, west, amplified by more noodles—these ones flat and glassine as Jell-O jigglers—made in-house from green bean powder and smothered in black bean sauce the color of topsoil.

They were an 8, a shot of 151 to the fire that heralded the “numbness” Chiang talks about, a sensation coaxed from the floral Sichuan peppercorn. The numbness is why the fire dissipates after you set down your chopsticks, softening to a dull halo that lingers just a little while. The numbness is why you can eat, heartily, at Han Dynasty without fatiguing your palate or your resolve.

A brief reprieve came in the form of the flaky flounder done in the sharp, garlicky hot-sauce style (7), its viscous crimson sauce fortified with hot bean paste bleeding over the rim of the shallow bowl. A perfect 10 followed, a sizzling dry pot of shrimp served in a mini wok on a live flame. It hissed and spat hot oil as I worked through the crispy crustaceans and whole dried chilies, both spice-hot and temperature-hot, rousing tastebuds I didn’t know I had, chiseling every flavor into sharp relief.

It was fortunate leafy baby bok choy and magically tender mushroom caps were standing by. At first bite, I found the perfectly cooked vegetables, suspended in viscous white sauce better described as mucous, unappetizingly bland. But with sweat on my brow and lava in my veins, the veg acted like extinguishers. Chiang made me order them—“What about vegetables,” he’d said, more of a statement than a question—and I was glad he did. Whoever Han Chiang is—gentle sprite, food activist, prick—I’m content to shut up and listen. ■

Han Dynasty

108 Chestnut St. 215.922.1888.

Follow on Twitter @handynastyphila

Cuisine: Sichuan.

Hours: Daily, 11:30am-11pm.

Prices: $1.50-$22.95.

Atmosphere: An unexceptional space that doesn’t distract from the food.

Service: Personable and personalized.

Food: Flavorful firestorm.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Chris Drucquer said... on Mar 18, 2010 at 12:43PM

“I can't go more then 3-4 days without getting some of Han's fiery cuisine! There isn't ANYTHING like it! Just magical. . .”

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2. ryan d said... on Mar 31, 2010 at 12:37AM

“This place is a must try for spicey lovers”

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3. JD said... on Apr 23, 2010 at 04:53PM

“As a new found believer, this place is a must for spice lovers ..

Highly recommended; I will be there weekly, maybe more...”

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4. james said... on May 21, 2010 at 10:37PM

“My favorite place in philadelphia....If you are a lover of quality, authentic chinese food...this is the place...no comparison”

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5. richbarn said... on Jun 2, 2010 at 10:23PM

“A real Chinese restaurant for people who know good Chinese food. Han is a treasure and will love to advise you in the event you have not achieved "balance" (our three dishes included too much fried food...one lightly...one heavily). The ingredients are the freshest and the 1-10 spice scale portrayed on the menu is accurate (6 was quite hot). There was something for everyone including our vegetarian and bland spice (1) children. Overall better than any Szechuan cuisine we have sampled in Philly.”

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6. Johnny said... on Mar 9, 2012 at 08:29PM

“The noodles were very floury and bitter- too much msg. The fried rice was also bitter.”

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7. sam said... on Nov 21, 2014 at 03:56AM

“i don't think the writer was very good because they swear in the text and u that children read this”

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