Han Dynasty, the popular Philadelphia-based Sichuan restaurant, has opened to long lines and hype in New York City’s East Village. As any NYFJ reader knows, we love Sichuan food, with its fiery chilies, its abundant use of garlic and ginger, and the exciting tongue-tingling sensation of Sichuan peppercorns. We recently enjoyed one of Han Dynasty’s six Philly-area locations, so we are happy to see it open up shop here.
But last week, Han Dynasty suffered a negative review at the hands of Pete Wells, restaurant critic for the New York Times, who awarded it no stars. Wells is “mystified by the popularity of Han Dynasty in Manhattan, where there are far better Sichuan restaurants,” complaining that Han Dynasty’s version of Sichuan cuisine “has a thick American accent” with too much sugar and too many bell peppers.
We felt compelled to respond because, respectfully, Wells misses the point. The allure of Han Dynasty is not that it serves the best Sichuan food, or the most authentic (it does not), but that it makes Sichuan cuisine accessible to New Yorkers in a fun, trendy atmosphere. And, importantly, it does so outside of Chinatown or Flushing.
The fact is, Sichuan and other Chinese cuisines are delicious–some of my favorite in the world–but Chinese food in New York City is a disaster. While other Asian cuisines have thrived here, Chinese food (outside a few select neighborhoods) has been relegated to flavorless and uninspired neighborhood spots with bland food best eaten as late-night takeout or while drunk, or both.
Compare that with the explosion of other Asian cuisines. Popular Thai restaurants in every neighborhood, like SEA in Williamsburg, serve tasty and attractively presented food in modern decor to crowds of diners, even though better and more authentic Thai cuisine can be be had at holes-in-the-wall like Pam’s Real Thai on West 49th. Ramen shops like Ippudo and Momofuku Noodle Bar attract throngs of people waiting to enjoy their steamy bowls of soupy noodles in an upbeat and trendy atmosphere. Meanwhile, Sichuan and other Chinese cuisines, with flavors that are just as exciting, have almost no comparable restaurants at all, let alone one in every neighborhood.
Wells’s criticisms only prove the point. He confesses that he “had hoped that somebody would curse at [him] when [he] ordered,” giving him more confidence in the restaurant’s authenticity, I suppose, but “[i]t never happened.” And he laments that the food is not as good as at Szechuan Gourmet (which Zagat describes as having great food but “dumpy decor”) or at Little Pepper, his favorite place in College Point, Queens.
But many New Yorkers don’t want to be “cursed at” or go to “Queens” for their Friday night out with friends. Instead, we want what Han Dynasty offers: a trendy atmosphere, a good cocktail list, an East Village location. (For the unfamiliar, College Point is an area of Queens north of Flushing, and Little Pepper is about 40 minutes on foot or 15 minutes by bus from the nearest subway station–the last stop on the 7 line.)
Meanwhile, we thought the food at the University City location was perfectly good, even if not authentic. Dumplings swimming in bright red chili oil were a highlight, with only mild heat and good sweetness. Cumin lamb was heavy on the cumin, sweeter and more saucy than usual but quite hot.
The dan dan noodles–when done right, one of the best dishes in the world–was a disappointment. Instead of the mouth-numbing puckering sauce of chili oil, vinegar, and Sichuan pepper, the dish mixed in sesame paste to produce a flavor more akin to Chinese-American sesame noodles. Ma po tofu (see our recipe) was done correctly, though, which lots of Sichuan pepper, fermented black beans, thick-cut scallions, and a bright red color.
Even if it is not a pillar of authenticity, Han Dynasty proves that the American mainstream wants good, flavorful Chinese food and will even wait in line for it. Perhaps Han Dynasty’s popularity will spur more Chinese chefs and restaurateurs to venture outside Chinatown and Flushing and show their stuff in exciting and upbeat locations. And maybe the neighborhood spot will be forced to improve just a bit.
Han Dynasty NYC
90 3rd Avenue (between 12th & 13th St)
New York, NY 10003