Two out of the three dished that we ate at Han Dynasty, the much foodie-hyped Philadelphia outpost of Han Chiang's authentic Sichuan restaurant, were not what we initially ordered. With the infamously frank and wise-cracking owner dashing from table to table to ensure all orders go through him in order to guide your decisions, you can expect a similar experience, too.
Honestly, I was a little apprehensive to try Han Dynasty. For one, Han Dynasty is known for their authentically hot spiced dishes that send even pepper fiends into a sweat, and, while I do enjoy spicy food, I do not enjoy setting my face afire and eating in a state of numbness. If you're similarly apprehensive, do not be. All entrees come with a numeric heat scale (1-10) on the menu, so it's easy to steer clear of the dishes that will blow your head off.
Secondly, I wasn't sure how vegetarian friendly the menu was. All of the reviews I've read were about the meat dishes. Also, I could just see Chiang cantankerously telling me a vegetarian life was not worth living, and sending me out the door to reexamine my lifestyle choices if I asked for vegetarian recommendations. No such thing happened, and there are tofu options for many of the entrees, and also a handful of vegetable dishes on the menu.
The appetizer we initially ordered was discovered to not be available after a bit of waiting, so Chiang recommended the Sesame Cold Noodles since it would not take long to come out of the kitchen. Brought to the table by Chiang, he smeared a mountain of garlic on top of the scallion-topped noodles and tossed them table-side with the salty and slightly sweet soy and sesame sauce.
Wow, was there a lot of garlic! Enough to make the Cullen family pick up and move one state over. So much more vibrant and powerful than any sesame noodles I've ever made at home, this dish turned out to me my favorite. Every other table also had a bowl of cold sesame noodles, so these noodles definitely are a crowd pleaser, and probably an easy introduction to Sichuan dishes.
Keeping with the garlic theme, I went a Garlic Sauce Style entree (4 on the spice scale) with stir fried thin strips of firm tofu, ginger, garlic, bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, and bell peppers. Certainly spicier than any "spicy" dish at most Chinese American restaurants, the heat was noticeable but very pleasurable. The garlic sauce just covers the tofu without being cornstarch-gloppy, making the dish seem light.
The boy tried to order Hot Sauce Style tofu, which comes in at 7 on the spice scale, but was told without hesitation by Chiang that he couldn't handle it . . . even if the kitchen made it medium spiciness. Not feeling like arguing, nor having the luxury of explaining our heat tolerance in a relaxed, slow dining room (the dining room was too hectic on our visit for Chiang to stop and converse), the boy acquiesced and ordered something else.
Double Cooked Style fish (2 on the spice scale) with leeks and hot peppers cooked in a black bean sauce and chili oil was only slightly less spicy than my tofu dish, and was equally exceptional. Tender, non-greasy, fried fish was enveloped in a light, salty and spicy sauce studded with only a few black beans, unlike thick black bean dishes at most Chinese restaurants.
For a more relaxed atmosphere and better service, especially if it is your first time dining at Han Dynasty and you'd like to converse with Chiang about the dishes, I'd recommend eating on a weeknight. Our Friday night service was slow, with only Chiang and two other servers, literally, running from table to table in a full house. Tables who came in long after us received their food before us.
Clearly understaffed on a busy night, Chiang recognized our long wait with small samples of two dishes, which, unfortunately, he realized we could not eat because they contained meat the minute he set them on the table. And as we got up to leave, a sincere apology for our wait came from Chiang again.
We've only just scratched the surface at Han Dynasty, but have already had some of the best Chinese dishes we've ever eaten. Now that we have a feel for the spice levels and better understand the vegetarian options, I think we can safely move on to some spicier dishes.
If you do eat meat, be sure to make a reservation for the $25, family-style, communal feasts every first Monday of the month where Chiang sends dish upon dish (mostly meat) out of the kitchen to the salivating Han Dynasty devotees that fill the dining room.
108 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106