The Hunan Garden is a Chinese restaurant of the old school, with economy prices, big portions, few frills (no hot towels or sherbet between courses) and a plain-Jane environment with neither statuary nor exotic goldfish.
The walls are fake Tudor (left over from a previous occupant), the chairs are plain wood, the booths 1960s red.
The menu is broad, with an emphasis on Hunan and Szechuan specialties, but the quality varies considerably from dish to dish. The secret is to know what to order, because what the Hunan Garden does well, it does very, very well, and often at an amazingly low price.
Start with the smoked chicken appetizer, at $3.25 a big portion of thick-sliced meat, moist through and through, with a smoky flavor and crackly skin.
More intensely flavored and unusual is smoked fish, slightly sweet and pungent. Woo shang beef is good, too, thinly sliced and marinated in an anise-flavored spice mixture. And don't overlook cold hacked cabbage, peppery, slightly sweet, very tart, flavored with sesame oil -- a delightful palate-freshener throughout the meal.
For a milder appetizer, try crisp chicken with peanuts, perfectly trimmed and lightly coated with chopped nuts. But avoid the steamed dumplings, which have had gluey wrappers and an overly coarse filling.
Among the entrees, the chicken with pine nuts is outstanding, one of the best versions of this dish we've had. It's painstakingly prepared, the chicken cut into tiny cubes the size of the many pine nuts, and the light sauce cleverly sparked with tiny slivers of salty Chinese pickle. It's top-notch.
A second standout is emerald shrimp, which is soupy and bland in many restaurants, but here is a delicate fluff of a dish in which lots of plump, sweet shrimp is combined with lightly cooked egg, vegetables and just enough sliced pork to give the dish a bit of zip.
A nifty dish for vegetarians or dieters is moo shi vegetables -- moo shi pork minus the pork. It's an excellent dish, with tender pancakes and a good filling of bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, scallions, mushrooms and bits of egg.
Crispy whole fish is very good, too, with moist flesh, crisp skin and a sweet-tart-hot-garlicky sauce. Also well prepared is Hunan chicken, its peppery, slightly vinegary sauce laced with ginger.
Hunan smoked pork, perhaps the most robust dish in the house, was on the dry side when we last tried it, but that was probaby just a slip-up. We give consistently low marks for the crispy duck, however, which has been very fatty all along.