First Impressions of Han Dynasty, Philly's Sichuan Outpost in New York

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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

Talk about an embarrassment of riches—it seems like only yesterday that there where no Sichuan style Chinese restaurants worth recommending in the East Village. A hunger for decent tea smoked duck or Dan dan noodles meant a trip outside of the 'hood. That changed when Grand Sichuan opened on St. Marks a few years back, closely followed by Hot Kitchen on Second Avenue. And now we have the newly minted Han Dynasty open on Third Ave, which, even at this nascent stage, has the potential to be the crown jewel of Sichuan restaurants in the East Village.

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Han Dynasty occupies the space that formally housed the middling Thai restaurant Montien in a little row of tenement buildings that are holding out on the encroachment of gleaming high rises. It's the first New York outpost of a burgeoning chain of highly revered Philadelphia-area restaurants.

During a recent conversation with two of New York's most acclaimed Chinese restaurant owners and chefs, both of whom happen to hail from Philly, I heard nothing but unequivocal praise for Han Dynasty. They quipped that their (very famous) chef would hate the place "because it is so fucking good!" The East Village location hasn't been open long enough to warrant a proper review, but my impressions from a few early visits feel very promising.

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Han Chiang takes an order.

The concise menu is remarkably budget-friendly. According to owner Han Chiang, who was waiting tables on both occasions, he wants to keep the prices the same as Philadelphia's. The menu is broken down into hot and cold appetizers, noodles, soups and mains with a spice level rating from 1 to 10, 10 considered "quite spicy," a colossal understatement for most Westerners. The portion sizes are quite generous for the most part; Chiang highly recommends coming with a few people and sharing dishes. "I hate people who don't share food!" he proclaims indignantly.

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Spicy crispy cucumber.

A simple dish of seeded and skinned cucumbers in a fiery chili sauce ($6.99, spice level seven) make good first bite to prime your palate. You will be surprised and delighted by how much flavor this humble little bowl of cucumbers packs.

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Scallion pancake.

"I don't recommend this dish" chided Chiang of the Scallion Pancakes ($3.95) that I ordered. He explains that the dish isn't truly authentic to his vision, but some menu items are necessary options for the less adventurous. He also warned against the "crispy rice-style" entree, (which sounds like a stoner's delight—your choice of protein with sweet and sour sauce, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, and wood ear mushrooms, served on pillows of sizzling crispy rice), or dishes served "scallion style."

In fact, pretty much anything without a little red number next to it does not get his seal of authenticity. That said, it was the best scallion pancake I can remember eating; rather than a dense soggy mass of dough, this one had delicate, flaky layers and was light and crisp.

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Wontons in chili oil.

Wontons in Chili Oil ($6.95, spice level six) are simply wonderful: the lithe, tender wontons came doused in a fiery chili oil that, despite its heat, lets the actual flavor of the pork come through.

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Dan dan noodles.

Dan Dan Noodles ($7.95, spice level seven) may be a must-order, and in the way they define the restauant. The dish looks so simple, just a bowl of noodles and some morsels of ground pork, yet it's deceptively complex with layers of textural contrast and flavors.

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The noodles are mixed tableside.

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Dry pepper style scallops

Golden coins of triple flash fried scallops ($22.95, spice level eight) come in a tangle of cury fresh and smaller dried chilies. The scallops reminded me of perfectly cooked fish and chips (this is the highest compliment I can pay fried fish). If you're spice-averse, don't be put off by the high heat level; it's easy to avoid the peppers.

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Ginger shredded duck.

My Philly friends all insisted that I order the tea smoked duck, but because the restaurant is so new, the tea-smoked duck has yet to join the menu. But the Ginger Shredded Duck ($18.95) is made with duck that's tea-smoked in Philadelphia, and after having it shredded, I can't wait to have it whole. There's some serious complex smoke flavor along with a pleasing succulence.

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Beef hot sauce style.

This molten pot of Beef Hot Sauce Style ($17.95, spice level seven) comes stir fried with cabbage, a fistful of garlic, leeks, celery, Sichuan chili oil, and a viscous hot sauce.

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Once the dish is mixed together, the spice and heat are inescapable but highly addictive. The dish delicately balances pain and pleasure.

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Spicy beef noodle soup.

The balmy late summer weather is probably not the best time to be eating steaming bowls of noodles strewn with tender chunk of braised beef round in a hearty broth ($8.95, spice level five), despite its deliciousness. But I can see this being my go-to dish to ward ofd the winter chills, not to mentions the winter blues.

As you might divine I am pretty excited by Han Dynasty. It is certainly early days for the venture, but with a proven track record in Philadelphia and a clearly passionate and dedicated owner, it has strong potential. There are reportedly long waits times during peak hours at the Philadelphia locations; be ready to expect the same phenomenon here.