I was first turned on to Hunan Restaurant in San Gabriel by the inimitable Tony C. aka SinoSoul, recently deemed "LA's Most Controversial Food Blogger." While much of Tony's content may be provocative, he knows his Chinese food, and Hunan Restaurant is some fabulous stuff.
Hunan cuisine, is of course, spicy, but also fragrant with herbs and preserved (i.e. smoked) meats. I'm told that Hunan Restaurant smokes their meats in-house. The interplay of smoke and spice is one of the things that is unique and crave-worthy about Hunan cuisine and one of the strengths of Hunan Restaurant.
The menu at Hunan Restaurant (sometimes called Hunan's Style Restaurant or Hunan's Restaurant) is not particularly helpful to the English speaker, though it is filled with some fairly amusing translations, including a category of dishes called "Hot Pot Soil Food." I'll do my best to describe the dishes in way that makes them easy for the non-Chinese speaker to identify. If anyone happens to know the Chinese names to these dishes, please leave them in the comments, and I'll add updates.
My favorite dish at Hunan Restaurant is a smoked pork with bean curd. Unfortunately, the menu description is something vague like "Assorted Preserved Meats" but what you get is smoked pork belly slices with slivers of fried bean curd, all buried in piles of leeks and peppers. The smoked pork is deeply smoky with fat that melts in your mouth. If you served it without the peppers and bean curd, you would think it came out of a Carolina BBQ pit. It's some of the best smoked pork I've had. Add to that the cushiony, chewy bean curd slices and searing peppers, and you have a dish that is near perfect. I would eat as much as I could, rest to allow the burn to subside, and then go at it again.
Also excellent was the stir fried (non-smoked) lamb with peppers, stir fried with gobs of cilantro. Again, there was a great flavor interplay, this time between pungent lamb, cilantro and other herbs and again, all those peppers.
As a palate soother, the restaurant gives you a free bowl of its sweet pumpkin soup. The bright yellow soup has a smooth, creamy broth with small chunks of pumpkin. It's mild, sweet flavor is the perfect salve in between spicy bites.
The food is generally quite spicy but not inedibly so (at least not what was served to a table full of white folks). If you go with folks aren't huge on spice or bring kids like we do, there are noodles, scallion pies, fried rice and dumplings, all nicely done but none particularly exciting.
If what you want is exciting food though, go for the pork, and savor every luscious bite.
529 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776