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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010

Huan Xi Rewards Your Sense of Adventure

Delightful, authentic Chinese items not found on the menu

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Huan Xi, a small restaurant located in the former Hop Sheng Gourmet, may not seem remarkable at first, but don’t be fooled by initial impressions.

Most of the business comes from carryout and delivery, and it’s true that the menu looks like it could have been copied from 30 other local Chinese carryout places. There is the familiar kung pao chicken, pork egg foo young and chicken fried rice, as well as the mandatory “happy family.” Unlike some Chinese restaurants, the prices are quite reasonable. An order of eight fried dumplings is just $4.25. Many entrees are sold as half-orders, too, which allows the solo diner a bit more variety.

Huan Xi is also a good place for a cheap lunch. An order of spicy shrimp for just $5.50 includes fried rice and a choice of side item.

The staff does not speak much English, but they aim to please. And the authenticity of Huan Xi is where things get interesting, because the chef is very willing to make items not found on the menu. The off-the-menu items tend to be from Fujian, a region of China to the south of Shanghai. Restaurants that serve this style of cooking are rare in this country. Ordering could be a challenge if you don’t speak or write in Chinese, but the rewards are worth it—these dishes are unlike anything on the regular menu.

The first item to be offered will be beef tendon, a house specialty. But probe a little further and you may be offered sour vegetables, a plate of chopped Chinese cabbage in a light sauce that is tart with rice vinegar. Matchstick-sized pieces of ginger punctuate the dish, which is best when shared with a few other items.

At another visit spicy fish was offered. This is nothing remotely like the spicy shrimp that is made with green pepper, carrot and onion in a sauce that is spicy and sweet. The fish is not just whipped up in a wok; instead, the cooking process takes some time, which could explain why it is not on the menu. The white, flaky fish—definitely not catfish or tilapia—arrives in a large bowl with a steamed broth. It comes with fresh cilantro, celery and a mustard green that is leafier than bok choy, as well as pieces of ginger in thin sheets and whole dried chile peppers. The flavor of the chiles interweaves with Sichuan peppercorns that are more aromatic—this is Chinese fare that truly excites.

The kitchen also has a supply of lamb that is not found in any of the menu items. Trusting the judgment of the chef, the lamb arrived in flash-fried slices with scallions and whole dried chile peppers over a bed of lettuce. There was another ingredient that I had never encountered in Chinese cooking: tiny, curved seeds, like small caraways. Some of the flavor remains, but the cooking process removes much of it and turns the seeds into more of a crunchy texture in this unexpected and very delightful dish. Prices are not listed, but these items were in the $7.50-$13.50 range.

Huan Xi is also perfect for those looking for inexpensive carryout fare. There are plans to add a second menu featuring these dishes in the upcoming weeks.

For now, those with a sense of adventure looking for unusual fare should venture inside. Trust the chef.

Huan Xi

2428 N. Murray Ave.

(414) 906-8888

$-$$

Credit Cards: MC, VS

Handicap Accessible

huanxirestaurant.com

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