Atmosphere: In an earlier incarnation, the place was apparently Spanish; thus lovely Chinese prints on stucco walls.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price Range: $2.75 for pork fried rice to $17 for Peking duck; most dinners in the $4 to $5.50 range.
Reservations: A good idea on weekends.
Credit Cards: Visa, Master Charge, American Express.
Special Facilities: Easy parking in shopping center lot; wheelchairs must navigate a curb to front door, but restaurant is a accessible; boosters available; cocktail menu and carryout.
Located in the Twinbrook Shopping Center in Rockville, next to an auto parts store, the Human Garden looks like a garden-variety Chinese restaurant.
But you'll find some orchids growing there. One of the things that makes the moderate-sized Hunan Garden more exotic than most Chinese restaurants is the style of its cuisine.
The cooking of Hunan province is hotter and spicier than the food of Canton, although not so fiery as many Szechuan dishes. We found the tang of chili and the use of sugar and vinegar characteristic of Hunan cooking pleasantly different, but not too overwhelming for the kids to enjoy.
The menu, while typically Chinese in length, offers enough atypical -- and intriguing -- choices to lure you away from the egg roll, fried rice and sweet-and-sour pork syndrome. Who wants egg foo young when you can have shrimp sizzling rice patty, which not only sizzles all the way to your table, but snaps, crackles and pops dramatically as the writer transfer it to a serving platter before you?
Unfortunately, the shrimp sizzling rice patty was another family's notion, not ours. Luckily, Hunan Garden has more than one good idea. The usual appetizers sound dull beside such unusual first courses as winged chicken and woo shang beef. Another time I'd be tempted by an assorted appetizer plate.
This evening, though, it was won ton soup, 80 cents, for everybody. It was good, the broth spiked with the flavor of chili, but we've had better.
We ordered moo shi pork, $4.95, and Hunan fried rice, $4, to please the girls in case Hunan-style cooking proved too hot for their taste. We also asked for lamb with green onions, $5.70, another dish we like. To experiment, we dipped into the full page of Chef's Specialties, most of which are described as "hot and spicy."
We chose scallops Szechuan-style, $6.95, and something we thought the girls wouldn't touch: Hunan spicy crispy whole fish, $7.50.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the moo shi pork was an easy 10. By the time, the plate got around to me, there was barely enough to fill half a pancake.
After tasting it, I could understand why: it was just plain delicious.
The fried rice was a simple dish, with large pieces of shrimp and beef in it. It was good but not outstanding. Even the least successful dish, the lamb, was good enough. Slices of meat were sauteed with green onions and served in a mild but flavorful sauce.
The problem was that the lamb was chewy, probably from being a bit overcooked.
Scallops Szechuan, a platter of small tender scallops with sliced water chestnuts and black mushrooms, had a mild bite to it, but not enough to prevent the girls from trying it and liking it.
And the fish. Order the fish just for the fun of seeing it. It is a Chinese yellow fish, brought in from the mainland, our waiter explained. Dipped in batter and deep-fried, the whole fish arrives at your table standing rather than lying on its platter, surrounded by a colorful sauce.
The girls were quite taken with the fish, intact from teeth to tail, and one they could look right in the eye, at that. Those who like their fish moist and barely firm-fleshed would find this one overdone, but the crisp texture of the fish went well with its sweet-and-sour sauce based on tomato paste and green onions. Although billed as a "hot" dish, the sauce was hardly the kind that clears your sinuses.
Dessert brought more surprises. The way to end a Chinese meal is ice cream, right? Not at Hunan Garden. While I must confess we tried to order ice cream, the Human's broken freezer forced us to try some Chinese sweets very different from Western-style desserts.
Our waiter brought extra plates so we could all sample the ones we ordered. Fried banana, $1, was a whole fruit seasoned with cinnamon, wrapped in batter, deep-fried and dusted with confectioner's sugar.It was hot, sweet and delicious.
Sweet bean paste bun, 75 cents, was a dumpling with a mildly sweetened filling. Ho-hum. Chinese red date cake, $1.25, is more like a pastry than a cake, the minced fruit and nut filling interlayered with thin, phyllo-like leaves. It looks a bit like baklava, but is lighter and much less sweet, having a mild apple flavor. Delicious. The latter two take 15 minutes to prepare, so anticipate a wait if you decide to not have ice cream. We were glad we waited.
Our bill for five, with tax and tip, was $45.53.