Fan Cai Zhen Xiang
If Cantonese food had an antithesis, something so blatantly contrasted that even an expat a week off the plane could identify, Hunan food would be it. Nearly every dish is covered with a massive helping of either dried or chopped chili peppers thrown into the wok, and is sometimes dramatically flipped into the air amidst flames. You’ll find no slow-cooked, brackish medicinal soups at Fan Cai Zhen Xiang, only hearty, peppery Chinese home-style fare at far bygone prices. The heat can be difficult to handle for those not keen. Fear not, the spiciness has been slightly dumbed down for the local market.
The flagship dish of any Hunan restaurant is the Duo Jiao Yu Tou (剁椒鱼头). It’s two fish heads with a bit of flank meat, covered with half green and half red peppers. FCZX manages to score a goal with their version as it isn’t overly oily and salty and only RMB 25. Also try Xiao Chao Xiang Gan (小炒香 干) the fried, smoked tofu packs a satisfyingly spicy wallop. Even the veggies have peppers throughout the plate.
Prepare yourself for what you are about to get into. If unfamiliar with the term re nao which means boisterous and lively, one can make a good study of it here. The entryway of the restaurant can leave you wanting to flee because this place is usually crammed with people corner to corner, perhaps with a wait. In this case, there are waiting areas with free peanuts and snacks near the door where you can peruse the genius menu. Instead of a gaudy, laminated hardcover, the dishes here are featured simply on a piece of paper with check boxes. Skirting the realm between fast food and a proper sit-down place helps keep the prices down and portions decent.
It seems the costs have been rolled back to the early 2000s. This also explains the reason FCZX is always busy. Unfortunately, for the Chinese-impaired, eating here would be vexing as there’s no English menu. Having a walkabout with a waitress and pointing works fine.
Fan Cai Zhen Xiang is located directly behind the Dongcheng Carrefour through the parking lot. Try to avoid Tuesdays. They give away free Hunan green tea and it triples the diners at the restaurant—unless you want tea.