Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hunan Garden – St. Paul, MN

Each year for D.Rough’s birthday, she picks a super fun place (usually at the last possible minute) to go for birthday drinks. This year was no different. She sent out the invite, tallied the yes responses and notified Hunan Garden – a place she and Rita had visited and had magical times. Just wait for the description.

I wanted to actually EAT at Hunan Garden, and we found out they stopped serving the full menu at 9:30pm. I rolled in about 9 and started to take the whole experience in. I’m probably going to ramble, but bear with me. It’s worth it.

Once you pick an entrance to the building (tucked away under a downtown skyway, the location is split into two areas. A divey restaurant that serves powerful drinks on one side – a divey bar that serves Chinese food on the other. I mean this place has the lights down lowwwww. Red-painted walls with Asian décor and yes, still somehow, you feel like you belong here. There’s no judging here. You just sit down, shut up, and eat or drink.

Then, you have the entertainment – “One Man Band” Ray Evangelista. One guy up the stage with a guitar and a rack full of accompanying top 40, classic rock, and old timey tracks. The guy can play that guitar too – I was honestly, quite impressed with his skills. The guy can also sing the heck out of these tunes. He’s got not music or lyrics in front of him and nails every song. He works the crowd a little bit and people are honest-to-god listening and paying attention and clapping and cheering when he starts and finishes songs. Perfect for this quickly-more-and-more-awesome establishment.

Then, you have the staff. Joe is either the owner or he runs the place like a boss. He’s the nicest and charming Asian man with long gray hair who doubles as chef and server, as well as host and drinking buddy. The bartender was a super friendly blonde woman who made sure I was taken care of and then made sure all the patrons were taken care of. Super nice, service with a wink, and knows how to pour a serious drink.

The restaurant seating area was closing down when I got there, but there were open booths in the bar area for me. I got a menu and figured out what I wanted. There’s a fantastic selection of appetizers, soups, and entrees on the menu and I decided to be gutsy and get something new – Plum Chicken and Shrimp. I also needed to check out some appetizers, so I got the Tibet Plate – egg roll, fried shrimp, hulla beef, paper chicken, and rumaki. The bartender told me she’d be right over, and I just hopped up from my table and went to the bar to order - save this lady a couple of steps and make her life easier. I had heard about the Volcano drink they have here, so I ordered one. She said, “You know that’s for four people, right?” I replied, “Yes, I do.” She smiled, nodded her head, and started mixing this huge bowl of rum, brandy, and pineapple juice. Awwww yeah.

The Volcano is serious. If you’ve been to Psycho Suzi’s in Minneapolis, you’ll recognize the Polynesian tiki bowl it comes in. There’s a spot in the middle that you pour Bacardi 151 into and then light it – that’s the volcano part. Then, I saw her pour the 151 all over the top of the bowl – intentionally – to make this thing even stronger than it already is. Like I said – a serious pour. Plus, this bowl of liquor is delicious. If you’re not going anywhere for a few hours, you should get one. They are head-spinningly inexpensive.

Joe brought out the appetizers and then scuttled back to the kitchen to finish the entrée. I dug into the various fried bits on the plate. The breaded and fried shrimp was decent. Nothing fancy, but fried shrimp is always good, as long as it’s cooked all the way through. The rumaki seemed to have an evil number of toothpicks in it (be sure to find them all before you bite into it), but had a decent flavor – although a little cold on the inside for my taste. If you don’t know, rumaki is bacon wrapped around chicken/duck liver and water chestnuts and then fried. Sometimes good, sometimes not good. The paper chicken was interesting and not like anything I’ve had before. It’s a piece of chicken cooked inside an aluminum foil triangle pouch – this was just ok and I had some concerns about the temperature of this one, as well. The Hulla Beef is a skewer of beef – nothing special, as far as I could tell. Good flavor, but not much pizazz. The egg roll was actually quite good and cooked perfectly. Good amount of ingredients on the inside and the shell was light and crispy. Plus, I think I got a bonus cream cheese wonton, which was really quite good.

The entrée came out next and looked pretty good. It smelled even better. The plum chicken and shrimp is in a brown garlic gravy with a bunch of water chestnuts and caramel walnuts. Wow, this was better than I was expecting. The shrimp was good and not fishy, the chicken had no gristle or tough pieces, and there was plenty of rice to accompany the dish. I should have ordered it spicy, but even without the zing of peppers, this dish was a nice surprise – especially with the gamble I took of getting something new.

By the time I was finishing up dinner, the birthday party crew was rolling into the Hunan Garden, ready for drinking. Which is exactly what happened. A ton of appetizers were ordered and a Volcano or two. …And, Joe may or may not have done some shots with us…

People kept asking – why don’t we know about this place???? There were comparisons drawn to the Red Dragon in Upton Minneapolis due to the tiki drinks and Chinese food, but this place has more panache and fewer people. It also has some of the best signage known to man hung on the inside. I shall give you a few examples:

As people were wrapping up dinner, Joe brought us out some fortune cookies from his secret stash. These are only for the most fun customers.

We shut down the bar that night, which was awesome on so many levels. One of those levels was NOT the fact that I had go to work in 4 hours and then immediately drive 7 hours to Chicago the next day. Still, WORTH IT. And I look forward to going back. This place is a gem in the downtown St. Paul area, and so amazing just for the entire experience. Sure you CAN find better Chinese food if you wanted to, but why would you when you’ve got all this awesome rolled up into one incredible place. I’ll vote for Hunan Garden (though my phone keeps auto-correcting it to Human Garden) every time!

Happy birthday, D.Rough!!!

Top 5 things about Hunan Garden
1. Atmosphere – without question. This place rules
2. Staff – Joe and the awesome lady bartender were fantastic hosts
3. “One Man Band” Ray Evangelista
4. Plum Chicken & Shrimp
5. Volcano drink for four

Bottom 5 things
1. Cold Rumaki
2. Cold Paper Chicken
3. Downtown parking with some shifty characters roaming around
4. Some people want to drink and be left alone… until they drink 8 too many and want to be your friend (amiright, Boom?)
5. The bartender brought me 4 straws – as if I were going to SHARE that delicious Volcano with people. hahahahaha


Anonymous said...

You completely lost me after you used the word "super," as in "super fun!!" You must be a millenial.

Ruby James Vita said...

That's it, I'm going there ASAP.

Chao said...

I'm sooo not a Millenial.

Also, ruby, I would HIGHLY recommend it. You'll love it and it isn't swamped like the Red Dragon is. Think dive bar that just happens to have Chinese food.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review and if you're reading this, Hunan Garden Staff, you made this girl's 29th birthday a great one. We'll be back soon!

D. Rough

Matt said...

damn, chad... my people are not welcome here.