Want to know the difference between Han Dynasty and Mission Chinese? Mission Chinese is from San Francisco, the chef has an ombre, and Food & Wine Magazine thinks it's really, really cool. Han Dynasty is from Philadelphia, and nobody thinks anything from Philadelphia is cool.
Otherwise, there are some similarities at play between these two establishments, namely in the fact that both serve Sichuan cuisine, and both also showed up in New York with an extremely dedicated following. We were initially brought to Han Dynasty with a friend who is a hardcore enthusiast of the restaurant from his days in Philly, to the tune of eating the stuff about twice a week. I'm gonna guess that's not the best idea nutrition-wise, but that's the level people take it to with Han Dynasty. The people that love this place love it so hard that it's not even like they're eating anymore - it's like they're using.
Now that I think about it, our visits to Han Dynasty have actually been a lot like going with someone to a flophouse where they do drugs with a bunch of strangers. It's a mess of a restaurant with bare walls, people all over the place, and seemingly no one in charge. The staff seems to know many of the patrons by name, just like a dealer pretends to be a customer's best friend to buy some good will when things go wrong. And at this point, things go wrong a lot in this restaurant. We had a mishap of some sort during each one of our dinners, usually with our order being screwed up. We also noticed some distinct consistency issues when ordering the same dish on different visits. But we also found that we didn't really care too much. Why? Because the food is so good. The Dan Dan Noodles here are the single best example of that dish that we've ever had. The Dumplings in Chili Oil are incredible. The Hot Pot is tongue-numbing Chinese food euphoria. At some point it doesn't matter that you waited an hour to sit down or that your waiter brought over the wrong food. You just want more of this stuff.
Ultimately, that's all that matters for Han Dynasty. To use another drug reference that we learned in Breaking Bad (and not on the streets, Mom), this place just has a really good "product" that people want. Yes it has some flaws, and no, it will never be cool like Mission Chinese. But people will be lining up for the goods regardless. You can count us among the newly hooked users. So please keep an eye on us, and step in if things start to get out of control.
Dan Dan Noodles are an absolute must when you visit Han Dynasty. This is one of the best noodle dishes in New York City, pasta included. Our only warning is that these guys are an (8) on the spicy scale, and they even come off hotter than some of the other things on the menu that should be on the same level. Whatever. You can handle it.
Good lord, these dumplings are good. These floppy f*ckers are damn near impossible to eat with chopsticks, but we felt accomplished and satisfied when we did manage to get them in our mouths. The dumpling wrapper is super thin and wide, and the chili oil they sit in is really tasty. It's also really garlicky, so keep that in mind if you've got some close talking or mouth kissing on the docket for after dinner.
A bowl full of cucumbers siting in a some bright red sauce that looks way more intimidating than it is. These are listed at (6) on the heat index, but the cucumbers cool it down to something more like a (4).
You'll see lots of these string bean side dishes on people's tables around the room. Order them if you really need something green on the table, but we'd recommend saving the stomach space for other things. Oh, and this isn't what your doctor meant when he told you to eat more vegetables.
When this dish is good at Han Dynasty, it's unbeatable. If cooked perfectly, these "popcorn" style fried chicken bites are crispy, spicy, and bone dry, without an ounce of grease coming off them. But we've had them when they're a little bit too oily too, and that throws the whole thing off. Order it, and hope you get a good batch.
A strong and safe order from the Han Dynasty menu. This is a good move for anyone at the table who might be a little less willing to eat some heat, as this is one of the mildest dishes in the restaurant. It's also really delicious. And in the off chance that you're not being a complete p*ssy that day, you can always have them crank up the spicy by simply adding more hot peppers.
Order this and a little sizzling wok will arrive at your table, full of meaty hunks of white fish, lotus root, and Sichuan peppercorns. It's a (10) on the hot meter, so make sure you're prepared for what's to come. It's also worth noting that those Sichuan peppercorns are going to numb out your mouth a little bit. If you decide to order this, eat it last.