Han Chiang offers up 10 spicy sauces at his Old City restaurant.
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. ■
108 Chestnut St. 215.922.1888.
Follow on Twitter @handynastyphila
Hours: Daily, 11:30am-11pm.
Atmosphere: An unexceptional space that doesn’t distract from the food.
Service: Personable and personalized.
Food: Flavorful firestorm.
Hot or cold, raw or cooked, Japanese food in Philadelphia hasn’t had a moment like this since Morimoto opened in 2001.