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Hooray for Hunan

Downtown's newest Chinese eatery



In truth, the opening of a new Chinese restaurant is rarely cause for celebration or high expectation. Whether it calls itself Szechuan, Cantonese or Hunan, if it's located in Middle America it usually caters to a broad-based audience, Americanizing regional dishes by removing exotic ingredients and distinguishing spices, and you'll usually find it in a strip mall off a six-lane freeway.

But the opening of a new Chinese restaurant in the middle of downtown is cause for celebration and a high degree of optimism.

Here's a place you can depend on when you're sick of the brewpub circuit and you're not hankering for the upscale, fashionable chef's creation of the day with a price tag to match.

And here's a place that will deliver to your whole office on those days when you just can't escape the desk. On a pleasant spring day, it's an easy walk from any point in the downtown area.

Hunan Springs is the newest downtown Chinese restaurant in Colorado Springs, in the familiar spot left vacant on Kiowa Street when the venerable and utterly American Date Bar shut its doors.

The place has been thoroughly renovated and redecorated in tasteful shades with comfortable seating, and the food is good enough to warrant a modest ballyhoo.

The service is delightful -- friendly, eager faces offer a warm greeting, lovely presentation and doting but not overly intrusive assistance.

Hunan Chinese cooking is of the southern, spicy variety, cousin to Szechuan, using lots of fresh chilies and distinguished by elaborate meat preparation. Twice-cooked pork, for example, is a famous Hunan dish, as is spicy Orange Beef. Hunan Springs offers an exemplary Twice-Cooked Pork ($7.95), rich and sweet with a little heat provided by red chilies, but Orange Beef is not on the menu.

Like most Chinese eateries, this one aims to please a wide audience, thereby offering many standards that are not actually of the Hunan variety -- Chicken with Cashew Nuts, Beef with Broccoli, Egg Fu Yung -- and they are generally well prepared.

But go for the spicy dishes if you want to taste the best dishes here (they're marked with an *).

My favorites are the Beef Hunan Style ($8.25) and Lamb Hunan Style ($9.25). Thin, tender slices of beef or lamb are stir-fried with onions, dried chilies, garlic and ginger in a sauce of rice wine, rice vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, thickened slightly with cornstarch and finished with a splash of sesame oil. Hunan Springs adds a colorful variety of just cooked, crunchy, colorful vegetables, and the result is aromatic, slightly spicy, filling and delicious.

The Kung Pao dishes here are also very good. We tried Kung Pao Chicken ($7.95), plentiful chicken chunks tossed with red and green bell peppers, water chestnuts, onions and peanuts in a spicy sauce flecked with red dried chili peppers.

Vegetarians can't go wrong with the three spicy choices on the menu -- Bean Curd with Sesame Sauce ($9.25), Bean Curd Szechuan Style ($7.75) or Broccoli with Garlic Sauce ($7.25).

Skip the Egg Fu Yung ($6.95 - $7.95) -- the portions are huge but the fried egg and onion patties are tough and flavorless and the sauce is bland. But the Sesame Chicken ($9.75) is better than is often found, thanks to its light, delicate, tempura-like breading.

I don't know which school of Chinese cooking invented Baked Curry Beef Dumplings ($2.50 for an order of two), but they are the single most tasty surprise at Hunan Springs. Shaped like potstickers but a little more ample, these are delicate, flaky pastries, brushed with an egg wash and stuffed with a finely ground, slightly spicy curry beef filling, baked to golden perfection. Splurge and ask for two orders. They are so tasty that sharing becomes difficult.

The standard soups -- Egg Drop, Hot & Sour and Wonton ($1.25) -- are all fairly standard tasting, though the Wonton gets extra points for the broth, loaded with scallions. We didn't try the two specialty soups -- Seafood Special Soup ($5.25) and Bean Curd with Vegetable Soup ($4.25).

I've been told by an office mate to avoid the Curry Chicken. She was surprised to find it battered and fried, not stir-fried and stewed.

The lunch menu is long and varied with 36 choices, served with white or fried rice and an egg roll. Prices are either $5.75 or $6.25 and servings are ample.

A huge kudo to Hunan Springs for the gorgeous presentation of the dinner entrees. On the night we ate there, our Lamb Hunan Style was served on a platter, accented by an intricately carved cucumber rose, and the Kung Pao Chicken, already colorful, was further embellished with a carved orange half. This would be a nice place for a special evening out -- there's an elaborate cocktail menu of colorful drinks, no doubt of the umbrella- or maraschino-cherry-on-a-spear-topped variety, and beer and wine are available.


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