One of the hardest things to do is write meaningful reviews of restaurants that are difficult to categorize. This comes into play in Chinese in a large way. A lot of Chinese eateries are American Chinese. They derive from a 19th century American fad, the dish chop suey. The development of this fad, and a very loving tribute to hyphenated Chinese cuisines in general, can be found in Jenny 8 Lee’s book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles“.
The old Cantonese style American Chinese restaurants therefore have had over 100 years to perfect the style, the pace, the ambience of their cuisine. They specialize in making nervous eaters relaxed about their food. Service is king, the food is more a queen. The dishes are not spicy, and focus on the freshness of the proteins and the texture of the vegetables. A good moo goo gai pan is a classic “old style” dish.
Newer authentic restaurants feature bold spicing, and a lot of new Chinese staff. Mainland China is hardly a service culture. The people themselves are outspoken by even American standards. No subject is taboo, except politics (and perhaps sex). As a result, the service is rough. Some of the things servers say to customers and to each other can be shocking. Even in better places, things happen. I was chased out of Peter Chang’s once by a waitress who was convinced I didn’t tip her. Turns out, her busboy had pocketed the bills I had left on the table.
So what to make of a place with old fashioned quiet and service, Americanized menus, but bold spicy food? What is it? How would an American know? Thing is, that’s exactly what you get from Hunan Gourmet. It feels like a hybrid of flavor authenticity and the old style Cantonese super service.
I’m not sure why this combination makes this place almost uncommented upon, but it does. The whole 3 comments on Yelp about it immediately contrast it with the nearby Canton Cooks (not even the same cuisine, but famously authentic, with wait staff who noisily eat in front of everyone). On Urbanspoon, MA seems to “get it”, or at least MA agrees with me about Hunan Gourmet’s signature virtues:
Great, family-staffed place. Friendly service. Quiet inside dining – not your typical noisy, chaotic joint.
I think, in a nutshell, by working so hard to act like the mid 20th century ideal of a Chinese restaurant, it’s hard to know where authentic begins and American Chinese ends. But if what you want is nice quiet service, good spicy food, and time to think, there aren’t many places like it in the city.
6070 Sandy Springs Circle
Atlanta, GA 30328