Chinese dining gets personal
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Though we’ve never met, Kevin Li immediately bids me a warm welcome as soon as I enter his Chinese eatery. And as I take a seat at one of the tables next to the window that’s filling the clean, spacious dining room with Kaimuki sunshine, he asks if he can get me something to drink.
This is the type of hospitality Li brings to the table. As manager and co-owner since his family took over earlier this year, it’s what — like the afternoon sunlight — spills over into every nook and cranny of the restaurant. With his uncles at the helm, the kitchen dishes out both the classics and some items diners would be hard-pressed to find at other Chinese restaurants.
Chinese Chicken Salad ($7.95) is one such ubiquitous and much appreciated staple of Chinese gastronome the restaurant offers. Simply stated by Li, “It’s a light appetizer that people like.” The vinegar-based dressing is what makes it. “Sweet and sour, and with a touch of salt,” Li says. He’s right, the mouthwatering tanginess of the chopped lettuce topped with shredded poached chicken breast and crispy wonton strips is an appropriate way to start a meal.
After several bites of the salad, my taste buds are warmed up for heavier fare.
Presented with plates of Kung Pao Chicken ($8.95) and Hunan-style Lamb ($12.95), my fork finds its way to the latter.
“Other restaurants don’t have it,” Li says of the stir-fried lamb dish specific to China’s Hunan province. Cut paper thin and cooked with leeks in a house-made mixture of black bean sauce, shoyu and “a touch of oyster sauce,” the tender meat smolders with a slight smokiness. “You don’t taste the gamey taste,” says Li. Yes it’s true, the robustness of the sauce is a perfect match for the lamb’s full-bodied flavor.
The aptly named Kung Pao Chicken — emphasis on “pow!” — certainly packs a punch. If the name alone isn’t an indicator of its spiciness, I quickly discovered that the glistening red skins of dried pepper are. The popular Sichuan dish isn’t actually on the menu, but don’t let its absence dissuade you from ordering it. “That’s what’s nice about Chinese-style dining,” says Li. “You can mix this and that, and make another dish.” A boon for picky eaters.
Mid-sentence with me, Li breaks off in his native tongue to greet a customer who’s just entered. “She is a regular,” he explains. “She comes here almost everyday.” Soon thereafter, I turn around to find her sitting solo, poring over the open pages of a newspaper marked with Chinese characters. She’s surrounded by various dishes, and like the other customers around me, she looks content.
Hung Won Seafood Restaurant
3434 Waialae Ave., Honolulu
Daily, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.