There’s a new Hunan in town, crammed under the freeway across from the hulking yellow and blue IKEA store. Kou Xiang Tang combines the best characteristics from the expat magnets of white tableclothed Guyi (a bit of style and hygiene) and raucously shabby Di Shui Dong (low prices). This brand, with another branch in Chongqing, features rustic countrified decor with chequered brown and beige tablecloths, rust-gold brick walls and yoke-backed wood and wicker chairs. The main dining room features a chandelier of silver fish, like a school of minnows swimming overhead.
Hunan cuisine is strewn with pickled chillies, dried chillies, fresh chillies and Sichuan peppercorns; a composite of sour, salty, fiery and numbing. It’s full of colourful dishes like double chilli fish head and smoked pork with garlic shoots.
One of the masterworks of Chinese cuisine is mapo doufu, a dish that when cooked masterfully is enormously addictive. Kou Xiang Tang’s rendition is not only one of the best we’ve had in this town (up there with Hei San Niang), but it costs just 7RMB. The wobbly tofu cubes are bathed in a glowing crimson of chilli, fermented beans, a tiny bit of ground meat, a sprinkling of scallion and the critical ratio of Sichuan peppercorns. Unusually, there is no deep layer of oil at the bottom. Just this tofu scooped over rice, plus a sautéed green vegetable – whatever’s in season – would be a brilliant lunch and it might even cost less than cooking it yourself at home.
There’s another unmissable dish here though: Kou Xiang Tang specialises in duck. They serve it stewed (79RMB), preserved and steamed (49RMB), and sautéed (89RMB). But the most delectable, and surprisingly the most affordable, is the ‘famous smoked duck’ (38RMB/half, 68RMB/whole). Smoked over tea and camphor tree leaves, the duck is purged of all gamey flavours, absorbing the intense fragrance, while the skin is roasted to a crackled lacquer.
Most of Kou Xiang Tang’s chilli-laden dishes are only modestly spicy but the pork trotters (59RMB) are volcanic. After a few bites, your lips burn like cinders. Doused with chillies, sesame seeds and scallions the dark brown trotters are tender but not very meaty.
Skip the scallion noodles (9RMB) and dumplings (29RMB), which are both served overcooked to mushiness. And the province’s standard bearer, double chilli fish head, is just average here; it’s more tender and aromatic at another major Hunan chain, South Memory. But in the seafood category, the scallops on the half shell (12RMB each) are perfect: tender and lusciously garlicky atop vermicelli and scallions.
Kou Xiang Tang has launched across Shanghai with confidence, rapidly opening five branches mostly in outlying areas. With their low prices, the city centre rents are probably prohibitive. But who doesn’t make the occasional field trip to IKEA? Kou Xiang Tang is just across the way, and now you have a choice of either Swedish meatballs or Hunan smoked duck.
By Crystyl Mo