Q & A With John Huang of Mao's Restaurant: Hunan Cuisine, Electrical Engineering, Fish Heads + The Expansion of Chinese Food In L.A.
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.
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