Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Prices: Most entrees $6 to $7.50; typical dinner for two with beer or wine, tax and tip approximately $24.
Ever notice how names of so many Chinese restaurants sound alike? We have a fantasy about how they choose those names. Somewhere, in a secret place, there's a master menu that lists words instead of dishes. On one side are a few standard modifiers: China, Shanghai, Peking, Hunan, Szechuan, Canton, Mandarin, Golden. On the other side are some sturdy nouns: Garden, Village, Palace, China, Peacock, Paradise. The restaurateur selects one word from column A and one from column B, and presto! he's in business.
The names may be confusingly interchangeable, but the skill in the kitchen isn't. Which brings us to the Hunan Village. It's among the best of the newer suburban Chinese restaurants, and has the added virtue of being located in Olney, not exactly a mecca for Chinese dining (unlike adjacent Rockville, which has lately become something of a shopping- center Chinatown).
The dining rooms at Hunan Village are pleasant though forgettable--simple, softly lit, done in relaxing beiges and browns, with the obligatory hanging lanterns and calligraphy.
The menu runs to the standard gamut of dishes: a sprinkling of Szechuan, Peking, Hunan and Cantonese selections, with appetizer and soup choices limited to about half a dozen each. But in this case a simple menu isn't a fault: the chef apparently knows those dishes well and does impressive things with most of them.
One sign of a good Chinese soup is its broth and one way to judge the broth is to ask yourself two questions. (1) If I were blindfolded, could I identify the kind of meat it's made from? (Not as easy as it sounds.) (2) Is the flavor interesting enough that I'd want to finish a whole bowl of just broth? Hunan Village's san shzin soup rates a "yes" on both counts, and has the added attraction of nutty-flavored sizzling rice, well- trimmed meats, big, sweet shrimp, crisp vegetables and straw mushrooms, which some Chinese restaurants find too expensive to use these days.
Among appetizers, steamed dumplings are marred by slightly undercooked wrappers and inadequate draining, so they sit in a puddle on a serving dish. You can get around the drawbacks by ordering the fried ones, delicately crisped on the pan side. Frying, by the way, is what they do best here: quick, light and hot, with the thinnest of batters. The frying skill is evident in the egg rolls, golden, thin-skinned beauties, well-drained and dried of oil, with a crisp, grease-free filling. Another appetizer, paper chicken, has a crisp skin, marvelously flavored, but at least on one occasion the meat was fatty and gristly.
The flair for frying carries over into the entrees and gems like crispy fish chunks, an immense portion of carefully filleted fish in the thinnest of batters. (Bite for bite, this is the cheapest substitute for tempura you're likely to find.) It's accompanied by a subtle, slightly hot sauce. Very similar is lemon chicken, moist chunks of chicken breast in the same batter, accompanied by lemon wedges instead of sauce.
Even the kung pao shrimp are fried in batter, and wonderfully. An unusual touch: the sauce--a pungent blend of soy, garlic, ginger, chile peppers, sugar and rice vinegar--is served in a bowl on the side, for spooning onto the shrimp. It's a good idea, enabling the shrimp batter to stay crisp and dry and the diner to control the hotness of the dish.
Crispy whole fish is a gem, the wonderfully crackly skin lightly coated with one of those superb batters and the sauce a lovely sweet-hot blend. Suggestion: since there's no filleting, consider throwing propriety to the winds and using your fingers. (Get an extra napkin and pretend you're eating lobster.)
"Hot and cold" is a house specialty with a simple, endearing appeal. Very lean pork strips, piping hot and zapped with plenty of fresh ginger, are served over strips of raw, crunchy cucumber. The cucumber isn't there just for decoration. It adds flavor to the mixture, and the contrasts in temperature and texture are delightful.
Judging by all the hissing and steaming in the dining rooms, the most popular item in the house (and probably the biggest size and price bargain) is triple delights, a mountain of beef, shrimp and chicken--all impressively moist and tender--with straw mushrooms, crisp vegetables and sizzling rice. The high quality beef shows up in a number of other dishes, among them Szechuan beef, in hot, slightly sweet brown sauce, and Mongolian beef, with big strips of green onion.
Among the Szechuan dishes, the eggplant is excellent, laced with lots of garlic and just enough chile pepper to add zip, yet not so much as to hide the more subtle flavors underneath. The dish suffers a bit, though, from mushiness that comes from overcooking.
The Peking duck is flawless, its glossy mahogany skin carefully scraped of underlying fat and its meat sweet, moist and all but fat-free. Another gem is Yuling chicken, the hacked, bone-in meat fried so the skin is a delicate, amber crunch. It's served over an unthickened sauce of wonderful symmetry, balancing soy, ginger, garlic, sugar and rice vinegar.
A dessert note: if you've had toffeed banana in other Chinese restaurants and found it too sweet for your palate or too sticky for your teeth, try the plain fried banana at the Hunan Village. It's mildly, naturally sweet, and you won't have to call your dentist in the morning.
There are some misses as well as hits at the Hunan Village, such as moo shi pork that's been too salty to eat. The camphor tea-smoked duck tends to be dry and short on smoky flavor, and it's been overcooked practically to a char, as has the hot spicy shredded crispy beef. And although we've found the service generally good, it's occasionally slow and indifferent.
But these are minor cavils. The Hunan Village would be a very good Chinese restaurant in any location. In Olney, it should be treasured as a unique local resource.