by Claire Oxford and Paige Beyer
“I feel like I’ve been transported into New York City Chinatown,” Maya Street-Sachs ’17 said. “That’s how real this feels, and just delicious and exciting and magical. … It’s the best switch-up from Peirce.”
Owned and operated by Jianying Wang, Hunan Garden in Mount Vernon has been in business for 21 years. Wang first opened the restaurant when her husband, Professor of Chinese Jianhua Bai, began teaching at Kenyon. Despite the fact that Wang had never operated a restaurant before, she decided it was important for her employment in the area. “I have poor English,” she said. “This … is very easy to have a job. The customers like it.”
Most of her current staff have been at Hunan since the restaurant’s opening and have years of experience under their belts. “Some people [have worked here] over 20 years,” Wang said. The chef, Yonghwa Chen, has over 30 years of experience, and brought her own recipes that were popular in New England with her. “The chef comes from Boston … so [we] check which [recipes] are good for Mount Vernon,” Wang said. The menu is ever-expanding in this respect, Wang explained. If this [recipe] is not good for Mount Vernon, we choose another one. We just add, add, add.”
The name “Hunan Garden” is derived from the cuisine’s namesake Chinese province, located in the southern part of the country. Hunan is a region known for its food, but Bai said the name was also appealing because it means “no difficulty … everything is going to be easy and smooth.”
The restaurant itself is sit-down, with red decorative lanterns and booths lining either side of the room set against large landscape murals of pastoral China. Part of the appeal of Hunan is its approach to food itself. “The produce is very fresh, every week,” Wang said. “Everything is by hand.” From cutting vegetables to rolling egg rolls, Wang stressed that the process of preparing food retains its human quality, evident as we observed an employee at a back table cutting fresh green beans into a huge pile.
While most of the business is local, Hunan Garden also attracts customers from as far as Mansfield and Columbus. Its reputation seems to speak for itself. “[Some] people [say] we’re the best Chinese food in Mount Vernon, some people say Knox County, some people tell me Ohio,” Wang said. In any case, Hunan Garden also draws its fair share of Kenyon students.
A group of Kenyon students chatting over a meal at a nearby booth looked like they were enjoying their meal. Street-Sachs and Olivia DeSilva ’17 said they had never been to the restaurant before, but were impressed with the food and atmosphere.
“I didn’t think it would be a restaurant, honestly,” DeSilva said. “I thought it was going to be more like a take-out situation. But it’s really nice. I’m happy that I came here.”
This group of Kenyon students had a wide variety of food piled high on their plates, such as veggie lo mein, chicken and broccoli and tofu. However, the most highly recommended item at the table was green beans: “There’s so much garlic,” Olivia Legan ’17 said. “We’re fans.”
Coincidentally, Bai’s favorite dish at Hunan is green beans. “My favorite is actually the green beans, the sautéed green beans,” he said. “I like anything [with] vegetables because they gather vegetables locally.”
Wang said in recent years she hasn’t seen as many Kenyon students, but that overall business is rolling. “Hundred and hundreds of people, [have] come [over] 21 years,” she said.