Hunan Chilli King

Top Ten Chinese Restaurants: No. 2, May 2011

The room is cluttered with colorful banners announcing specials, tourist-shop silk peppers, and New Year’s decorations (in Spanish) that could have come from the 99 Cents Only Store. Unprepossessing it is, but Hunanese cooking—magnificently direct, stoked on the region’s red chilies—has no better showcase. Cured meat is a staple in western China, and the fry-up of belly bacon with green onions and blistered, brittle-skinned pepper pods is potent stuff, each flavor powerful and distinct. Steamed fish head, another requisite from the region, is a stunner: A fermented bean paste nudges forward the piscine flavors of the carp, while soy sauce tempers the radiant heat. Ask for it spicy, and the chefs might peer from the kitchen just to see if you can handle it.