Some restaurateurs labor in the industry’s trenches for years before they find success. Others, like John Hu, pay their dues in other disciplines. In a former existence, Hu was an architect and contractor, which explains the slick but playful aesthetic of his restaurant, Hu’s Cooking. His partners in the business are a real estate agent and a banker.
Hu was opening manager at the Cooking Girl just down Holcombe Boulevard from his three-month-old restaurant. It was there that he met chef Wang Yu, the secret to the eatery’s runaway success.
Most Chinese restaurants in the United States cling desperately to classics from whatever region they hope to represent. Not so in Yu’s kitchen. The creative cook uses ingredients familiar in Sichuan and Taiwan to create dishes that are unapologetically his own. Ever see a spicy hot pot that uses mint as a vegetable almost like spinach? Yu does it with great success, combining the burn of chiles with the tingle of the mint.
Since opening in March, the restaurant has already had to expand its staff from two servers at a shift to six. In the last couple of weeks, Hu installed a new stove in the kitchen to accommodate the growing influx of take-out orders.
This popularity owes partly to the large Chinese populations of Rice University and the Medical Center in search of some home cooking, but says that word has gotten out and guests are increasingly more diverse. “The results over the last couple of months have been really overwhelming,” he admits. One Rice University student, Hu says, has visited the restaurant 40 times already.
In an effort to keep things fresh, Hu plans to change the menu seasonally. The next iteration will focus more on Taiwanese food, including classic Three Cup Chicken, which uses a cup each of rice wine, soy sauce and sesame oil. However, bestsellers will stay firmly in place on the menu. Before heading to Hu’s Cooking, check out the dishes sure to show diners what’s so special about the restaurant with the punny name.
What if salty Peking Duck fused with the sweet bean sauce that usually accompanies it? It might be something like this dish, which Hu says is probably Yu’s specialty. Don’t expect the duck to be crispy. The succulent flesh is instead wrapped in enviably rendered, but soft, skin that reveals just a hint of sweetness in each bite. The sugar is balanced with a chile-spiked dipping sauce.
Braised Pork With Fried Shredded Potato
Some lovers of Chinese-American cuisine will always seek out the sweet heat of General Tso’s chicken. It’s on the menu here, but for a more grown-up take on similar flavors, this dish hits all the right spots. Cubes of meltingly tender pork belly sing with the cinnamon and anise of five spice, but most of the flavor comes from a sticky, slightly tangy sauce flecked with chiles. For both visual impact and a pleasurable crunch, the pork is surrounded by a sea of fried potato.
Hu’s Seafood Hot Pot
There are Sichuan-style dishes that are all spice with little subtlety to make the impact worthwhile. Then there are Yu’s palate-searing hot pots. This one packs a powerful punch of spice, but a beautiful balance of acid and salt. Shrimp, squid, lotus, cauliflower and seaweed all absorb the intense red sauce in a slightly different way, meaning a great multiplicity of flavors in a single addictive dish.
Beef in Garlic Sauce
Shredded pork with fluffy bao is a favorite in the north of China, says Hu. But Yu has made the dish his own by using thin slices of beef in an intensely umami garlic sauce. They’re so tender, that they seem to vaporize on the tongue. The pile of likably oily meat is crowned with a dense shower of scallions, all ready to be stuffed into a steamed bun.
Duck Soup With Bamboo Shoots
The city of Nanjing is famous for its varied duck dishes. This unexpectedly rich clear soup doesn’t have the aromatics of pho or the spice of other dishes at Hu’s. Its assets come entirely from long-cooked, juicy chunks of on-the-bone duck and crunchy slices of bamboo. And it’s a true taste of place: The bamboo is imported from Nanjing especially for the dish.
Every Sichuan-facing restaurant worth its monosodium glutamate has this dish on the menu, right? They don’t have the Hu’s Cooking version. The uncommonly viscous sauce, dotted with scallions and ground pork, makes the silken tofu seem more substantial. It’s also spicier than diners are likely to find at most spots in town, but is unlikely to cause many tears unless you run out.