Though a preface seems counterintuitive to the nature of restaurant reviews, I feel the need to do so in the case of Hunan Express. I typically love hole-in-the-wall shops, stands and street vendors, for their mystery and excitement add to the overall gustatory experience. I get the sense that I’m not just eating to sustain myself, but that I’m also having an adventure, which improves my estimation of the food. Eating becomes as much an emotional event as much as a necessity.
That said, I don’t hold short-order vendors to the same standards that I would a sit-down restaurant charging two to three times the price. With Hunan Express or any such Chinese restaurant, I don’t expect to find fancier plates the likes of Squab with Five Spheres, or dishes made with douchi (豆豉), the pungent, bitter-sweet fermented black bean typical of the intensely flavorful Hunanese tradition and for that matter, much of China.* When it comes to short-order Chinese food I’m looking for a certain level of quality for a fair price. So even though I frequent Hunan Express semi-regularly, I’m not a return customer because the food is good. When I get home from work and I want to satisfy my craving for Chinese food without cooking it myself or driving out to China Bell in Madison or The China Cottage in Rivergate (hands down the best Chinese this side of the river), I hit up Hunan Express at 920 Gallatin Ave. because they’ve got the market in East Nashville cornered.
I understand it’s just a name, but I find something a bit misleading about a restaurant called “Hunan” having a severe deficiency of Hunanese dishes on the menu. I also understand that this is not a concern many of their customers share; most Americans want a variety of Chinese dishes to choose from, and they often want the weak-sauce versions of the Chinese originals. Hunan Express does carry one dish that has become the American standard for Hunanese food, General Tso’s Chicken. While General Tso’s is not actually from the Hunan province – most sources say Chef Peng Chang-kuei invented it while in Taiwan after the Nationalists fled Mao Zedong‘s reign – it does exhibit some traditional Hunan characteristics, a combination of spicy and salty with sour in a rich sauce. Chef Peng later altered the recipe to suit American tastes by adding sugar, and it’s this version that has proved popular throughout much of the world.
The Americanized version of General Tso’s is often criticized for being too sweet, but Hunan Express takes this syrupy overabundance to new levels. Granted, not much can be expected from an establishment that has it listed as “General Joe’s” on their menu, but I have to draw a line somewhere. Their version of the dish upsets the careful balance of flavors and blatantly disregards the other flavors entirely, culminating in a dish that is nothing more than chicken in sweet tomato sauce. It lacks dried chilies, an indispensable and relatively inexpensive ingredient in what is supposed to be a spicy dish, and rice wine vinegar, the element that provides the dish with its delicate pucker factor, is scarcely detectable if present at all. In fact, this is a trend I’ve found throughout most of Hunan Express’ offerings. The dishes which are supposed to contain shaoxing (绍兴酒), the quintessential dry cooking wine that graces many Chinese dishes, is completely absent from their dishes, leaving them quite flat.
Hunan Express is, however, not entirely devoid of positive characteristics. It is cheap, with most dishes averaging in the $5 range for a generous portion. And as I mentioned earlier, it is the only Chinese restaurant in East Nashville – so it does have that going for it. Perhaps Hunan Express has erred on the side of pandering too much to the American palate, but with Asian cuisine doing quite well in our neck of the woods at restaurants like Far East Nashville, Thai Phooket and Pad Thai Kitchen it seems that Hunan Express could only benefit from upping its game. Or perhaps the East Nashville market is ripe for another enterprise to step up to the plate. Either would be a welcome development.
* – If you haven’t tried fermented black bean, don’t go to your grave without experiencing the complexity of the dishes it flavors. If you like miso, the well-known Japanese fermented soybean paste, there’s a good chance you’ll like black bean sauces, and good chefs can cook these dishes with more or less bean to accommodate varying tastes.