70 Buckwalter Road, Suite 502
Limerick Square Shopping Center
Han Dynasty - with outposts in Exton, Royersford, and now Philadelphia - appears, at first glance, a culinary force to be reckoned with. In point of fact, the Exton location was voted number 43 in Philadelphia magazine's 2008 list of top 50 restaurants. And, as unassuming as the establishment may be - playing kneesies with a pizza joint in the nondescript Limerick Square Shopping Center - looks can be deceiving... in more ways than one. .
But when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty, I'm afraid it's an all-too-familiar story...There's good news and bad news.
First the good news... If you're ever on the prowl for the intriguing complexities and bold flavors & pungent spices that characterize authentic Szechuan cuisine, you've obviously come to the right address. The restaurant is particularly adept at harnessing the not insignificant heat brought about by the intricate interplay of chili peppers, garlic, and the unique flavor of Sichuan peppercorns. Needless to say, these incendiary ingredients have been known to touch off peristaltic conflagrations in the delicate nether regions. Fortunately, upon request, the kitchen is quite willing to turn down the fiery thermostat a notch or two.
If you like it spicy, the perfect way to start things off is with the luscious hand-rolled noodles presented in a Dan Dan sauce, a sultry Szechuan take off on Bolognese gravy enhanced with creamy sesame paste and tiara of crumbled pork. Equally satisfying are the homemade pork-and-ginger dumplings luxuriating in a spicy chili oil and slightly sweet soy sauce tinged with five-spice, and the exceptional Chengdu-style green bean noodles propelled into orbit with just a touch of vinegar.
For those who prefer a somewhat lighter opening move, I highly recommend the Taiwanese-inspired West Lake soup, a velvety egg-drop broth endowed with delicate diced vegetables and beef and dash of white pepper.
Among what we would consider entrées, several of the chef's specialties are real winners. A sumptuous rice noodle casserole, for example, incorporates both morsels of beef and tangy eggplant... The cumin-crusted lamb is inordinately tender and flavorful... and the "dry pot" of delicate flounder filets adorned with peppercorns, chilies, and hot bean paste teases the palate with its artfully controlled heat.
But beware - and now for the bad news - you veer away from the Szechuan specialties at your peril. Standard Chinese fare is just that, standard; and, in some cases, decidedly substandard. Or, as proprietor Han Chiang frankly told Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan: "It's crap! You couldn't pay me to eat that!" Evidently, according to Mr. LaBan, Chiang is "forcing the issue of authenticity by aiming as low as possible on his menu's chop-suey-house classics."
To be even more specific, the menu is basically divided into two parts: "Americanized" and "Authentic Chinese." And the former items, according to Mr. LaBan and my own unfortunate experiences, appear to be treated "disdainfully." If Mr. Chiang were truly attempting to please his patrons, he would be concerned with consistency as well as authenticity. Is this any way to run a restaurant...? A paraphrase of the famous line from the film Casablanca comes immediately to mind: "How extravagant you are throwing away customers that way... some day they may be scarce."
But this is not the end of the bad news... Service here is perfunctory at best; among members of the wait staff as well as those laboring in the kitchen. We had, for example, barely settled into our appetizers before entrées were deposited on the table. It obviously never dawned on our servers that something could possibly be amiss.
On one occasion, the gentleman who took our orders was fetchingly garbed in a rumpled and conspicuously stained white shirt, which leads to an even more basic concern... that of cleanliness. The dining area is spartanly but tastefully appointed and obviously squeaky clean... the restrooms, however, are quite another matter. I won't burden you with the lurid scatological details; however, to put the matter as euphemistically as possible, during our most visit, both restrooms were positively filthy. Since it was barely 6:00 p.m. in the evening, this state-of-affairs was completely indefensible. The restrooms should have been absolutely spotless in preparation for the upcoming dinner rush.
And these significantly less than auspicious circumstances are certainly enough to give any red-blooded American omnivore pause. If areas of the restaurant to which patrons have access are in such a deplorable condition, what about those areas to which they are not privy...? The kitchen, for instance. Would not any concerned customer begin to speculate with regard to the possible hygienic horrors lurking just behind its closed doors?
It's your call...
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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