A Whole Lotta Ho-Hum at Hunan Garden

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© Siiri Sampson 2010.
Seeing big, fresh slices of mushroom gets a girl excited...but looks can be deceiving.
If you're on your way home from running errands and can't bear the thought of stepping into the kitchen to cook, you could stop at Hunan Garden in Bellevue (11814 N.E. 8 St.) for some take out. But then you'd be missing the one aspect of Hunan Garden that's worth paying for: the friendly service. Bland flavors and overused cheap staples like celery, carrots and baby corn comprise the bulk of what this old Bellevue joint has to offer. Once home to outstanding pot stickers (which are still decent, but no longer a destination-maker) and many a family dinner, Hunan Garden is now mostly a shell looking for a little TLC in every department.

The open doors welcoming you in off the street are starkly contrasted by the automated welcome box that squawks various sayings at you from out of nowhere. The desolate front desk and lack of staff bustling about almost makes you wonder if they're actually open for business. That's only a fleeting thought as the super outgoing waitress promptly came out to ask us which kind of table we would like. This led to a private dining room (private because it was totally empty) full of the round tables you've come to expect from any Asian restaurant worth its weight in fortune cookies.

Service these days is so rarely above average, so the funny, relatable staff at Hunan Garden easily brightens up your night with a smile. They almost make you forget the mediocre surroundings. Although the appetizer timing was way off (coming at the same time as all the rest of the dishes), the soup that came beforehand was hot, tasty and served immediately.

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© Siiri Sampson 2010.
Chinese food fanatics live and die for the perfect pot sticker. These chime in just South of typical.
Regrettably, this is where things went from normal to forgettable. The egg rolls were full of cabbage, but not much else, although there was a tangy orange (hot and sour?) sauce as well as a pretty respectable plum sauce. The stir fried almond chicken was nothing more than fatty cubes of chicken cooked with copious amounts of baby corn and celery. The almonds were plentiful but wound up swimming for their lives in a pool of unidentified, mild sauce that neither complimented nor deterred from the lack luster dish.

The signature Hunan Chicken had delicate strips of chicken sautéed in a black bean garlic sauce, and some other sauce that covered up the black bean garlic sauce, which was too bad since the black bean garlic sauce was the server's selling point. The highlight was the fresh, thick-sliced mushrooms found peeking through the mountains of celery. The pitfalls of too much "other sauce," filler veggies and no brown rice within at least a half mile, made this plate a forgettable let down.

While Hunan Garden may no longer be a destination for large family dinners, birthday parties or client dinners, the passion and work ethic are still apparent in the prompt and uniquely genuine service. The waitress literally walked out the front door after we left to wave and say thank you. Who does that anymore? It's too rare. With some menu adjustment and updates, Hunan Garden still has a fighting chance.

 
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