You won’t find broccoli chicken on the menu at New Haven’s newest Chinese restaurant — and that’s by careful design.
Restauranteur Emma Liu made that announcement Monday afternoon at a ribbon cutting for Hunan House, a new restaurant featuring spicy, fish-heavy Hunan-style cuisine that she runs with her uncle, chef Lee Zuo and husband Robert Li.
“We are trying to bring authentic Chinese food to this country,” she said at the ribbon cutting, as the restaurant’s 10 employees prepared platters of food and straightened out red napkins and white tablecloths inside. “This is the culture we want to make everyone know.”
It’s a choice motivated by her longing for authentic Chinese food on the East Coast. After immigrating to New York seven years ago at the age of 22, she recalled being confused, and then annoyed, at a curious dish called “broccoli chicken” dotting menus from Manhattan to Queens.
“I said: ‘What is this broccoli chicken?!’” she said to a smattering of laughs from the crowd. She felt that she could do better, she said — and knew her uncle was the right guy to make that happen.
But she was busy with other life changes: her relationship with Li took her from New York City to West Hartford, where he began a nail salon and she started their family. While living there, she became friends with several New Haveners, including Amoy Kong-Brown of Amoy’s restaurant. When Kong-Brown let her know that the property next door was unexpectedly open in March, Liu asked her uncle to join her in a new business venture. She hasn’t moved physically from West Hartford, she said, but is “very excited” to start this new culinary chapter in New Haven.
The restaurant, which opens this week after a month of internal renovations, pays homage to Liu’s birthplace in the Hunan province, located in the Xiang River region of Southeastern China. Working closely with her uncle, who got his start in the U.S. doing Hunan-style cuisine in Flushing, Queens, Liu designed a menu populated with the foods she remembers growing up with: spicy, double-cooked pork slices in a glistening red sauce, pickled cabbage and fish soup, pork intestines, meat-packed spring rolls, garlic-kissed wilted greens, and sweet pumpkin cakes with sticky rice. Plentiful, steamy fish and seafood dishes celebrate the province’s rich heritage; a barbecued fish is what Liu notes as the “signature dish.”
After mulling it over, Liu also added a chicken with broccoli platter—but maintains that it’s unique. Chicken is shredded into small, delicate pieces, then put into a bowl with soy sauce and white pepper, where it sits for six to ten minutes. After it has marinated, Liu heats oil in a pan and cooks the chicken with a mix of garlic and hot green and red peppers. The spice from the red chilis, she said, makes it distinctively Hunan-style—and blessedly not what she experienced when she first came to the U.S. and came across all those standard “broccoli chicken” dishes.
Liu also wanted a restaurant that would transport New Haveners from Orange Street to southeastern China, she added. At the entrance, patrons are greeted with a golden cat waving its arm up and down, a sign of welcome and harbinger of good luck. Inside, painted masks from the Chinese opera, chimes dotted with Chinese characters, and knots designed from thick red yarn line the white walls. On one end of a main dining room, Liu pointed out her interior piece de resistance: a traditional fisherman’s outfit, pinned carefully to the wall in a museum-like display. On the opposite wall, an open net beckons as a sort of tandem piece.
Welcoming Liu to the neighborhood with a quick hug and tight handshake, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp lauded the Hunan House team for adding to the city’s culinary diversity.
“This expands New Haven’s reputation as a foodie city ... representing cultures from around the world,” she said. “It’s on the rise, and in demand.”