Sichuan food is ubiquitous in New York City nowadays, and my wife Jun and I can’t get enough of them. It’s less clear who played the pioneering role in bringing this spicy cuisine to the Big Apple, but a chef who goes by Shorty Tang comes close to that designation, with the legendary sesame noodles whose imitations are now almost everywhere in Chinese restaurants in the city, if not the country. When I heard chef Shorty’s daughter re-opened the original Hwa Yuan restaurant that her father had opened in 1968 before closing in the 1980s, I was very eager to check it out. While Hwa Yuan had some delicious dishes, Jun and I were expecting a bit more authentic (and spicy) side of the Sichuan tradition.
The massive menu at Hwa Yuan may initially make you feel lost. Fortunately, Jun and I visited the restaurant with another couple, so we had a room for ordering as many dishes as we liked. One dish for the sake of history lesson that you try to begin your meal is the iconic cold noodles with sesame sauce. It was a delicious start to our dinner with the sweet sesame sauce that would help get your palate going. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend ordering any dumplings, at least not the horrific pork soup dumplings (Jun said of all the Chinese restaurants she had visited in America, this was the worst xiao long bao). In looking at the menu, Jun and I spotted a note that we can control how spicy we would like the food that we order to be. We should’ve heeded that note and asked for an authentic spicy level for all of our other dishes because while none of them were bad, no single dish displayed the kind of spicy kick to your palate that makes the Sichuan cuisine so addictive in the first place.
Kung po baby mix potatoes was one of the favorites from the group, and I thought the Tang’s Amazing Tofu was also pretty decent. The group had some mixed reactions to the Tang’s Amazing Spicy Wine chicken (it’s often hard to find a dish with an “amazing” adjective that lives up to its name) as well as the whole fish with hot bean sauce. The flavor for these dishes was all on the sweeter side, perhaps to accommodate non-Asian diners who can’t handle spice as well as their Asian counterparts do. I get the restaurant’s target audience, but when I think of all the amazing Sichuan restaurants in the city that never shy away from making the diners feel their tongues burn, Hwa Yuan felt like a safe play than an adventure to the land of Sichuan.
Getting a reservation wasn’t too difficult online and the dining space is on three separate floors so you won’t have a lot of trouble getting seated on short notice. Order a bottle of Tsingtao to complement your meal (in my experience, wine can have mixed effects when you try Sichuan food). While I don’t know what the original Hwa Yuan looked like, the overall vibe of the remodeled one seems a little bit more shiny and touristy than other more modest establishments in the Chinatown. I don’t know if Jun and I will go back anytime soon to Hwa Yuan; when we do, we will certainly tell the server we can hold any level of spiciness and dare the kitchen to try its best in making us sweat and cry from their food.
KenScale: 7.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.5/10)
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 7.5/10
- Ingredients: 7.5/10
- Flavor: 7.0/10
- Texture: 8.0/10
- Value: 7.5/10
Address: 42 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002
Telephone: (212) 966-6002