If you're searching for the scintillating burn of the legendary Sichuan peppercorn, there're worse places to hunt out than Han Dynasty. And if you're searching for Han Dynasty online, make sure you go to HanDynasty.net, not handynasty.com, which focuses on an entirely other type of scintillating burn (or so I hear). Han Dynasty is one of those bare-bones Chinese restaurants like those in Chinatown, lauded for it's cuisine leaps and bounds beyond its atmosphere or ambiance. It's noisy, fairly unattractive, but bustling and apparently pretty popular. The waiters all don t-shirts with a (10) printed on the back, which is indication of spiciness on the menu (I thought it would've been funnier if the individuals could have each chosen their own number, but maybe that would've been a little too familiar). At any rate, the owner purportedly disdains any dish that is not followed by a number.... you're "allowed" to order a (1) , but not any of the options that are not heat-ranked at all, according to Han Chiang. Which is actually unfortunate, because for my tastes, while the spiciness fluctuated, all the numbered dishes tasted far too much the same.
But that's what Han Dynasty is all about, the Sichuan peppercorn- that iconic spice of the Sichuan region of China that is actually not a pepper at all but a relative of the citrus family, which explains its nuanced floral quality. There are other, "real" peppers circulating about, though, from fresh, sliced jalapenos to dried red chilis, and so the numbers on the menu should be heeded. We started with an interesting cold appetizer of spicy crispy cucumbers (6), the crispness not a result of the deep-fryer as one might assume, but the natural state of the refreshingly cool chunks of cucumber doused in a peppery red gravy, most of which remained at the bottom of the bowl by the time we finished. Had I more ambitiously spooned up sauce with cuke, it might've even pushed into (7), but if you apportion it conservatively, the dish can hover around the (3) or (4) level, a more prudent ingress than searing off all your taste buds before you've even been presented a bowl of rice.
The wrappers on the won tons in chili oil (4) might help tamp some of their heat, keeping the flavor of the little porky parcels spritzed with green onion more focused on their porcine innards and their slippery-thin wrappers, pulled taut to seal out the sweetly spicy oil, so you can dab it on to taste. And then arrive those legendary Dan Dan noodles (8), to which I cannot honestly conceal my bafflement as to their almost cult following. I swear that were packaged spaghetti- I detected none of that mythological chew of a hand-pulled noodle. Dumped with a mound of ground pork, some spice and funk, but
honestly I didn't eat enough of them to even come close to determining whether they approached near maximum spiciness. Nor care. They looked like a wan spaghetti bolognese, skimpy on the sauce and a one-trick-pony flavor. Granted I'm no Chinese cuisine authority, but I expected a little more complexity from such a hyper-popular dish.
So despite our proprietor's recommendation, scanning the other tables surrounding us illustrated a preponderance of the green beans with minced pork.... a dish with no number. But they were tasty beans, sizzled tender and shockingly vibrant in color, especially in comparison to all the shades-of-reddish-brown dishes we had visited up to this point. At any rate, by now I've already surmounted my personal annual pork consumption quota, but the little meaty bits that clung to alternate beans added a great meaty richness to the vegetable. Coincidentally, our rice arrived
with this dish, although it belonged aside the Dry Pot Style (10) Shrimp (all of the Entrees can contain your choice of protein, although unlike the Panda Expresses of the world, Han's options often include lamb and rabbit). The beans didn't need the rice, but if you got one of the dried chili pieces in your mouthful of shrimp, bell pepper, lotus, bamboo, black mushroom or celery, the Dry Pot did. Here, you must eat with caution, slowly allowing your saliva to present the sizzling bits slowly and incrementally to the back of your palate so as not to shock your throat into a spasmodic gasp and your tear ducts to spout
rivaling the force of a fire hose. Eating carefully, though, you won't scald your uvula, although I do think this tasting-on-eggshells takes away some of the joy of Chinese food, some of which is so satisfyingly scarfable But this was a (10), and I made it through with only a couple retractive pauses. The rice is wonderful, fragrant and clumpy- just as functions best with chopsticks.
No dessert... not even fortune cookies or orange slices, which to me is a little disappointing. I like Chinese food a bit for the ritual, and other than the absence of ambiance and bustling utilitarian-style service, Han Dynasty didn't really satisfy me in terms of why I go to a place like this. A little bias may have settled in, given the burgeoning chain this Dynasty is becoming- and lord knows I tend far, far from chains. I guess for meat and heat, Sichuan-style, it has a chopstick up on the competition. And hey! Maybe I just prefer Cantonese.
90 3rd Avenue (between 12th & 13th St), New York, NY 10003