Wilson Street’s Hutong is inspired by northern Chinese street food
by
May 6, 2022
8:00 AM
Linda Falkenstein
Lu rou fan, or braised pork belly over rice, is meltingly tender.
The dipping sauce that arrives with the petite, flaky triangles of scallion pancake is not the expected soy-ginger but more like a hoisin or plum sauce, and immediately it’s clear this is not your run-of-the-mill hoisin. Zhou Zhou, the owner of Hutong, the small Beijing street food bistro on East Wilson Street (who also happens to be waiting tables) confirms that the sauce is housemade by the chef — who’s also her husband. “We prefer to make things ourselves instead of having them come out of a package,” says Zhou. The expression on her face conveys something like “I mean, why else would you want to run a restaurant?”
The sauce is subtle — not too sweet, no one spice overwheming the others. Its zing sneaks up slowly. What is the spice blend? It’s hard to pull apart, but it’s star anise at the fore.
Since the onset of the pandemic, many restaurants have been operating with smaller, more focused menus. Multi-page temptations are not entirely a thing of the past, but they are increasingly not the norm. I find myself liking the edited menus; with the kitchen trained on only a few dishes, those dishes can be excellent.
The menu is simple: three cold plates, three small plates, two meat skewers (chicken or lamb), one rice bowl, two noodle dishes and an entree noodle soup. It’s enough for meat eaters to feel like there’s some choice; vegetarians and vegans will be limited to edamame, tofu skin salad, or cold sesame noodles. But Hutong is less a restaurant you visit to try different dishes than one you return to for your favorites.
The elusive (in Madison, anyway) rou jia mo, or “Chinese hamburger,” proves how inadequate that nickname is for this rich snack— its bun is not the soft, puffy mantou bun; it’s more robust. Don’t think hamburger; it’s closer to a pork belly sloppy joe with hoisin accents.
Lu rou fan, or braised pork belly over rice, is better known as a Taiwanese dish, but Zhou says it’s on the menu because Beijing and northern Chinese cuisine does use a lot of pork. Hutong’s version is different from the one at Taiwan Little Eats, which pairs the braised pork belly with sweet pickled vegetables and cold steamed broccoli. Here the pork is even more meltingly tender, the sauce leaning more to a gravy. Small bits of bok choy and wood ear mushrooms are slippery and savory; a braised hard boiled egg provides texture and flavor contrast, and elusive bits of crispy shallot are the perfect punctuation. Spicing again has star anise at the fore. If you love this dish, both Hutong’s and Taiwan Little Eats’ versions will probably find a place in your heart.
Other starters are fine — edamame were lightly spiced; potstickers were well balanced filling to wrapper and pan fried crispy. The cold tofu skin salad features a lot of tofu skin, and if you like this chewy treat, it’s even better here than it was at the old Wah Kee Noodle, where it was featured in the vegetable subgum lo mein. Here it’s only marginally a salad — there could be more celery and wood ear mushroom. This is a subtle little dish that’s a must if you like tofu skin, but I’m unsure of the size of the local tofu skin fan base.
Dan dan noodles, a Beijing street food favorite, are a little different here, made with ground beef instead of pork, and without the numbing menthol of Szechuan pepper. Heat comes from a housemade red chili sauce. It’s less rich than other versions I’m familiar with, but pleasurable — not too spicy, not too garlicky, not too nutty.
The housemade bone broth can be ordered separately or as a noodle soup, with neat slices of beef (tender, but not as flavorful as the beef ribeye in the donburi at Morris Ramen), cilantro, bok choy and daikon. The highlight here is the broth, thick and rich and spiced obviously with star anise; the spicy version is spicy, but is not going to cause anyone pain.
Hutong, like other restaurants, has staffing problems; Zhou has stopped serving lunch until she can hire more help. Construction at the nearby intersection of John Nolen, Blair and Williamson may cause a roadblock if you’re heading there from the east side (hint, use East Washington and snake over to Wilson via South Hancock Street). A parking spot is reserved for takeout in front, but it’s fun to dine in, too, in the narrow, tranquil space inspired by the historic Beijing alleys —“hutong” — the restaurant is named after.
Hutong
410 E. Wilson St.
608-230-6567; hutongmadison.com
Wed.-Thurs. 5-8 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-9 p.m., Sun.-Mon. 5-8 p.m.
$4-$16
by
May 6, 2022
8:00 AM
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