Restaurant Review: Hunan Lion

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

For about a quarter century, Hunan Lion has retained its reputation as one of Columbus' best Asian restaurants. As with any top cat, it has fans and detractors -- lately I'd heard more scuttlebutt from the latter.

Therefore, I sought to discover whether this king of the North-side Chinese and Thai jungle was resting on its laurels. After repeated visits to this Lion's lair, I can report that its roar is as loud as ever -- at least on plates.

I say this because Hunan Lion's unabashedly spicy food seems at odds with its serene, even old-fogeyish mood. This isn't to suggest the place is a bummer -- it's quite nice inside.

And apart from its toothless Muzak, Hunan Lion exhibits an accommodating upscale-casual, white-tablecloth ambiance. This derives from tasteful enough appointments such as etched mirrors, a mammoth aquarium built into a wall embossed with golden bamboo plants and pretty, nearly human-sized-huge Chinese-style vases.

The menu is also jarringly large. Basically, it traipses across China and Thailand, offering a few unusual dishes while sticking mostly to -- if finessing -- familiar takeout classics.

Appetizer-wise, I was startled and excited by the searing chili heat of the perfectly described Hot Sweet and Sour Cabbage ($5). In effect a voluminous bowl of thick-cut, mouth-walloping coleslaw, this crave-tastic salad from Hades was ignited by a panoply of chilis and aromatized by pockets of ginger.

Far more sedate but pretty great was the Mandarin Duck app ($7). A generous serving of lovely five-spiced duck, most in good-sized slices but some in tantalizingly crunchy bits, was outfitted with a tiny salad of diced cucumber and red peppers dressed in a lively, sweet and mildly nutty marinade. Both the duck and the cabbage easily outclassed my single-dimensionally sour bowl of Tom Yum Gai soup ($3.25).

Like the Lion's starters, entrees were delivered in gigantic, there-will-be-leftovers portions. One of my favorites was the Mala Lamb ($16), a knockout dish even bigger in flavor than size. Both smoky and smokin' hot from high-heat stirfrying and a potent sauce holding jalapenos, chili pepper, lots of garlic, scallions and onions, it managed to be a harmonious blend that accentuated the fine-tasting meat rather than overwhelming it.

Another Chinese main, the tame-sounding Chicken with Garlic Sauce ($11), was an example of Hunan Lion elevating a potentially humdrum dinner into something worthwhile. I liked how the poultry was shaped like the celery (which, along with water chestnuts, provided much crunch) and how earthy Chinese mushroom flavors married with the garlic and veggies in a dark, mildly sweet and salty sauce.

From the Thai side, the Green Curry with Shrimp and Scallops ($15) was a highlight. It was complex and colorful from red peppers, shiitakes, deeply sauteed Asian eggplant, and a coconut-milk-sweet and Thai basil anisey curry sauce.

Another Thai entree, Tofu Pataya ($10), also delivered full, if unspicy, flavor. Its big blocks of fried tofu were accompanied by rustically chopped veggies (including tomato), Thai basil and a whiff of fish sauce.

Uncharacteristically, desserts were uninspired -- so instead I recommend ordering a punchy Zombie cocktail, which goes great with the fiery food here.

Hunan Lion

2038 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side

614-459-3933

Web: hunancolumbus.com

Price: $$ ($10-$20 per person)

Cuisine: Chinese & Asian

Patio: No

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday, 12-10:30 p.m. Saturday, 12-9 p.m. Sunday