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

[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Out of all the restaurants in the ever-expanding Tony Hu empire, Lao Hunan is the one I keep returning to. The inviting, primary colored dining room is bested only by the friendliest set of military-clad servers this side of the Great Wall. But unless you're a gambling man, dinner here (or most other spots in Chinatown, for that matter) can feel a little unnerving. Futuristically dressed teens to your right are slurping something out of a bubbling, globe-sized bowl, while polo-tucked-into-khaki-shorts-clad tourists to your right have just been presented with a steaming, neon-orange plate of sesame chicken, a tray of crab rangoon, and to their disappointment, no Sriracha.

But what about you, mild mannered serious eater? How do you navigate a 500+ item menu, waitresses that are more than a little concerned you're going to send back your overly adventurous meal, and your own increasingly hungry table mates? That's where we come in.

Culled from a dozen or so trial and error trips, the following dishes represent sure-fire hits when planning a trip to Lao Hunan. Admittedly, this is not a list of the most obscure, most adventurous dishes on the menu. Instead, it represents a palate-challenging (as opposed to alienating) crash course on dishes guaranteed to result in return visits. I know from experience; I barely have to say "Lao Hunan, Assemble!!!" before 8 to 12 of my closest friends are at the ready for a meal showered in dried chilies.

Dishes You Should Order at Lao Hunan

Jade Tofu
Famous Hunan Chili in Black Bean Sauce
Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork Belly
Dry Chili Fish Filet
Hunan Style Crispy Eggplant
Diced Chicken Hunan Style
Famous Stir Fried Lamb
Dry Chili String Beans Hunan Style