Slideshow: Order Like a Pro at Lao Hunan in Chicago's Chinatown

Jade Tofu ($5.95)
Jade Tofu ($5.95)

The menu's "vegetarian chicken" description hardly does justice to this cold dish of thinly sliced firm tofu, salted chilies, scallions, cilantro, and chili oil. If you're uneasy about the idea of cold tofu, one bite will change your mind, and your new concern will be how to not appear greedy when you're taking bigger spoonfuls than everybody else at the table.

Famous Hunan Chili in Black Bean Sauce ($10.50)
Famous Hunan Chili in Black Bean Sauce ($10.50)

Somewhere between a condiment and a side dish, this plate of dry stir fried chilies and thickly sliced garlic doused in a black bean sauce is so addictive, you'll forget just how spicy it is until it's too late. The spice level of the peppers can be a little inconsistent at times, so I've taken to ordering mine with raw, thinly sliced bird chilies to make sure I don't become too complacent.

Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork Belly ($11.50)
Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork Belly ($11.50)

The servers claim to go through over 400 pounds of pork belly a week on this dish. I believe it: the fat-on, red belly is braised past tender and accompanied by still crisp strips of bell pepper and sheets of scallion greens. Even after the pork has long since disappeared, the unctuous sauce takes well to rice.

Hunan Style Crispy Eggplant ($10.50)
Hunan Style Crispy Eggplant ($10.50)

If I were to generalize Hunanese food based on Lao Hunan's menu, it appears the preparation of choice involves battering, a drizzling of salty-spicy chili oil, and a garnishing of scallion greens and dried chilies. It pops up all over the menu. Along with the aforementioned fish, the eggplant done in this style is a standout. It's all about the interplay of the tender fruit with the crispy coating, and it will leave you wondering just what wouldn't take to this cooking method.

Diced Chicken Hunan Style ($11.50)
Diced Chicken Hunan Style ($11.50)

Remember mall food court bourbon chicken? Swap the sickly sweet sauce for a pungent garlic one and add a healthy smattering of tongue numbing Szechuan peppercorns and you're about ¾ of the way there to describing the tender chicken in this sleeper hit. The best part is that the included spoon makes a much better delivery device than all those wasted toothpicks of our youths.

Famous Stir Fried Lamb ($15.50)
Famous Stir Fried Lamb ($15.50)

Unless you're truly spice-obsessed, it's easy to get burnt out on the capsicum onslaught on order at Lao Hunan. That's why it's nice to have a relatively mild mannered dish in your arsenal for people to keep coming back to when the heat becomes unbearable. Enter the tender, gamey lamb, which is the tastiest middle manager you've ever had.