John Huang is the owner and manager of newly-opened Mao's Restaurant. Named after Chairman Mao Zedong — who, yes, Huang holds in high-esteem — the eatery boasts a variety of spicy dishes that pay homage to Mao's hometown in the province of Hunan.
Mao's Restaurant opened in early October after Huang's lease expired on his old restaurant, Hunan Seafood Restaurant (Note: Hunan Seafood is still open, but is managed by a completely different staff and cooking team.)
A Hunan-native and a San Gabriel Valley restaurateur for over a decade, Huang's goal is to spread Hunan cuisine all throughout Los Angeles. We sat down with him to talk about Hunan cuisine and spread of “authentic” Chinese food in Los Angeles.
Squid Ink: How did you get started in the restaurant industry here?
John Huang: I opened my first restaurant in 2005 on San Gabriel Blvd. It was called Grand Cafe. The store was pretty small, and I wasn't sure if Hunan cuisine would be able to make it into this market. By nature of the cuisine, the food is really spicy and sour. We only had nine tables and it was just really difficult.
SI: Hunan cuisine is spicy — and so is Sichuan food. What's the difference between these two regional cooking styles?
JH: Hunan food is very spicy, but that spice level can be adjusted. There aren't any tongue-numbing ingredients in Hunan cuisine either. Sichuan food is both tongue-numbing and spicy because of the incorporation of peppercorns. The way we cook food in Hunan-style cuisines also tends to accentuate the flavor of the dishes. There's a lot of vegetables used and the spice doesn't drown the flavor — it accentuates it.
SI: Would you say that the majority of your dishes are recipes directly from Hunan, or do you have a wide variety of different dishes from all over China?
JH: We have a section of our menu dedicated completely to Hunan-specific dishes. The rest are general dishes, but we cook them using Hunan-cooking techniques.
SI: How did you get started in the restaurant industry?
JH: It was a combination of interest and love for food — I actually studied electrical engineering.
SI: Where did the recipes come from?
JH: I taught the chefs. There were two methods: I learned from online research and I also did a lot of experimenting. I already understood the basic cooking methods of Hunan-style food; it was just a matter of applying it to different ingredients.
SI: What are some popular dishes among your customers?
JH: It depends. Do you mean among the Chinese or Westerners?
JH: Well, for the Chinese, they really like the Hunan spicy fish head. It's a freshwater fish. Before I opened my restaurant, there wasn't a single Hunan spicy fish head in the entire Los Angeles area. There's also another popular dish called Mao's style braised pork. Now, braised pork is a dish common throughout China. The Mao's style braised pork is unique because we cook it differently; it's a little spicier than other variations throughout China. Chairman Mao Zedong was from Hunan and he loved to eat braised pork.
SI: And for Westerners?
JH: Lamb chops, hot and spicy chicken. Another customer favorite is the spicy sautéed lamb. We slice the lamb really thinly. There are no additives and there's a mix of spicy and fresh vegetables.
SI: What's your goal for the future?
JH: My vision is to bring this restaurant and Hunan cuisine to more Caucasian-based neighborhoods. I'm currently looking at properties in West Los Angeles.
SI: There's a good chunk of Hunan restaurants in this part of town. How are you different from everyone else?
JH: A lot of restaurants, they'll pull out ten dishes and they all look the same. We not only put an emphasis on taste, but we like to present our dishes in an aesthetically pleasing way. We also stay away from sugar. Hunan dishes are not supposed to have sugar. Some places put that in. We want the natural flavors of the vegetables to shine through.
SI: And lastly, what are some distinguishing characteristics of Hunan dishes?
JH: Hunan, the region, is pretty humid. Spicy food is perfect for that. And in terms of what we cook, there's a lot of vegetables and spices that are used. You won't see a lot of seafood in our dishes. There's a lot of aromatic ingredients like peppers, scallions, ginger and garlic. The great thing about it is that we take really simple dishes like stir-fried vegetables and turn in into an aromatic and spicy product.
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Clarissa blogs about Asian food at clarissawei.com. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.