Monday, July 30, 2007

Hunan Garden in St Paul

I had my dinner at Hunan Garden on Cedar St. It was a nice and 'exotic' experience. Let's say I've been to more than 100 Chinese restaurants in more than 20 US cities, this one is one of a kind, or simply put it: 'different'.

I wouldn't have entered the premise if I was not really hungry and exhausted, after walking around the downtown St. Paul area non-stop for six hours. For one thing, I saw one lonely black woman eating in a really big empty room, it looked Chinese; however, I couldn't find the door to get in. I walked back around the corner, there was no door. I walked around the corner again, there was this unmarked solid single door with no Windows. I couldn't tell the make of the door as it was wrapped with gray rubber. I tried the knob. It was heavy but smooth. Then within a yard, another single solid door. For a second or so, I was trapped between two unmarked single solid doors. With faint light from above, I read a white square sign on the inner door 'Guns not Allowed'. I would have turned my back, but my stomach convinced my legs to keep going. Crossed the second door, I got in the Hunan Garden.

On my left, it looks like a bar; on my right, it looks like a dinner area. The two parts are of approximate the same size. All in a sudden while I am still dizzied by my own decision to step in such as puzzling place, a big waiter emerged from nowhere. He greeted my cheerful, and led me to a window seat in a very professional way. I ordered a hot tea for drink. The black woman I once saw from outside seemed to be having a dispute on her order. The waiter got the owner involved. The owner talked to the African American lady, in a tone that was calm, constraint, while very confident. The owner is a Chinese gentleman in 50s or 60s in traditional Chinese outfit. His gray long hair rest on both side of his shoulders. His English is almost perfect. So it felt I was sitting inside a movie. The kind of mysterious Chinese Kung Fu movie produced by Hollywood in the 60s and 70s. No where else has I seen a place so 'Chinese', as in a Chinatown depicted in a 1970 Hollywood movie. Elaborate patterns are found from the high back chair to the wooden carving above windows seatings. Hugh red cloth featuring tattoo Chinese calligraphy were hung on the walls. Aside from the owner's clam arguing with the African American lady, it was all but quiet.

The waiter apologized for bringing my tea late. He was extremely polite, and I was so scared. Throughout the course of the meal, the waiter apologized four more times. He shouldn't have apologized, as he had been promptly in almost every moment. Maybe he holds himself for a higher standard that I was not sure about.

The tea pot was yellow from outside, and shinny silver inside. It was unreasonably heavy, and very well made. The rice came in a bowl that I can't properly describe. Together, they looked something elegant, however strangely mismatched, and misplaced. I am sure they are not Chinese. Maybe Chinatown, or Chinatown in 1960s Kung Fu movies.

I ordered 'Black mushroom and bamboo shoot with snow beans'. the black mushroom were soft, smooth and juicy. The snow beans were very fresh. It is not Chinese, but an American Chinese dish, because of the excessive starch and soy sauce. However, I must say it's one of the best American Chinese dishes I have tried in the U.S.

Business picked up on the bar area on the other side. I think I hear people singing. The owner walked outside to have some pipe smoke. The blue smoke coming out of the pipe fluctuated in the wind, and so did his Kung Fu dress. He looked so cool. I was about to ask him whether I could take a picture of him. Then the scene came to my mind that he ordered his apprentices to finish that nosy troublemaker and dump the body in a black trash bag. Well, maybe next time.

The take-home message? Hunan Garden in St Paul is a nice place to go because of its nice foot, courteous waiters, exotic settings and a mysterious owner in Kung Fu suit. It's a place you shouldn't miss in St Paul, whether you are looking for good Chinese food or not, whether you are Chinese or not.

Highly recommended.

Hunan Garden: 380 Cedar St, St Paul, MN 55101, (651) 224-7588

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