Ever get your mouth set for something?
You know what I’m talking about: You’re going out to dinner, somebody suggests something — a pepperoni pizza, or really good tamales, or a steak and baked potato, or white cheese dip — and by the time you get to the restaurant, it’s like nothing on earth could taste better than what you came there for.
We bring it up because we were recently in just such a situation. Having packed up a trio of Times staffers, we headed out to the WLR on the lunch hour to sample a new Chinese/sushi joint we spotted while on one of our not-infrequent jaunts to The Fancy Wal-Mart on Highway 10. By the time we got there, we were in full-on Mouth Set mode, itching to scarf some spicy stuff we can’t quite pronounce. Imagine our disappointment then, when we found that the restaurant we came for was still a few short days from opening (remember kids: always scope it out first before rounding up your time-obsessed co-workers for lunch and having them drive 20 minutes one-way).
In a bit of a Chinese food frenzy by that time, we remembered a slightly more seasoned place that happened to be right in the neighborhood: Hunan Oriental Cuisine at 11610 Pleasant Ridge Drive. While Hunan is a couple of years from flashy and new, we soon found it still has some nice surprises to offer — not to mention big and tasty dishes for when you’ve got your mouth set for Chinese.
Like most Chinese restaurants, Hunan’s menu is absolutely gargantuan, with over 150 items when you count in the big slate of lunch specials. A huge menu, in our book, has always been a strike against any restaurant. How much passion and flair can a place put into a dish, after all, when there are 150 possibilities to choose from? Still, we soldiered on.
For an appetizer, we tried the tried-and-true crab Rangoon ($4.75), though the Pu Pu Platter for two (with egg rolls, fried shrimp, crab Rangoon, chicken wings and cho-cho beef) was a steal at only $9.95. Our pre-flight eats arrived quickly and turned out to be fine: six hot, petite little hats of crispy dough, stuffed with a crab-heavy filling. Between the three of us and a bowl of spicy mustard, they were soon gone.
Almost before that, however, our entrees arrived. Companion No. 1 and I, fearing the lackluster portions found in some lunch special entrees, had ordered off the regular menu — chicken with orange sauce ($8.95) for me, chicken with green pepper ($8.95) for him, both accented on the menu with a little star that meant “hot and spicy.” Our more dollar-conscious Companion No. 2, however, stuck to the lunch menu, and tried the General Tao’s chicken ($5.75). When our plates arrived at the table, it was obvious who the smart one among us was. While the portions received by Companion No. 1 and I were Herculean — easily enough for two people, each including a large lidded bowl of fried rice and a big platter of sauced chicken — it was honestly hard to see a size difference between our orders and the much cheaper lunch portion of Companion No. 2. Oh, and he also got an egg roll, an order of hot and sour soup and a bowl of crispy noodles. Curses!
With enough to share all around, we passed the plates and soon tore in. The first thing we noticed, being long-time fire-eaters, was that the three dishes weren’t spicy enough by half. All agreed that when you see “hot and spicy” by a menu item in a Chinese restaurant, you should pretty much have to sponge away the fine sheen of sweat from your forehead while eating the dish (we could have likely remedied this by specifying “very spicy” to our waitress when we ordered — but doing that, we’ve found, can become a challenge for a bored chef in the back, resulting in a dish so hot you can’t physically look at it with the naked eye).
Beyond that, we found very little to complain about. Companion No. 2 munched his eggroll while gloating over his big, cheap lunch, and declared it great, along with his soup. His General Tao’s chicken, while not spicy enough, was pretty much spot on, with none of the oversweetness General’s chicken can suffer from. My orange chicken, meanwhile was good as well, though all who tried it agreed that the orange flavor was a bit over the top (in the best orange chicken, the flavor is much more subtle, almost a hint of citrus, balanced with ginger). The best of the lot, however, turned out to be the chicken with green pepper, which came bathed in a sweet, tea-dark sauce with big strips of pepper. Spicy and good.
Overall, we remember now why Hunan used to be a frequent stop when we were trolling for Chinese in West Little Rock. Hot, fast, generous and tasty — though it wasn’t where we set out for, it was definitely the right choice.
Hunan Oriental Cuisine
11610 Pleasant Ridge Drive
11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday.
Credit cards, free local delivery on orders over $15.
Don’t fear the lunch specials. They’re as big (maybe a bit more) than the dinner entrees, at just more than half the price.