New York Times Review of Han Dynasty: Pete Wells Not a Fan (And Neither Am I)

I’ve been to most of the Han Dynasty locations, including the one in New York, but I’ve never waited in line. This isn’t because owner Han Chiang and I are chummy. Believe me, we are not.

It’s partially because there’s pretty much nothing that I will wait in line for. Lines are for suckers and chumps. I even bitched and moaned when I had to stand in line at the Wells Fargo Center box office last year to pick up tickets to see the Rolling Stones. Free tickets, and some of the best seats in the house. So, you know, I’m just not a line guy.

That’s not to say that if I show up at a restaurant and they tell me there’s a ten-minute wait that I won’t give it a go, especially if there is a group of us and also especially if there is a bar where I can neturalize my line anxiety with things made from gin.

But if that ten-minute wait suddenly turns into a twenty-minute wait, well, I’m not going to be happy. And if it becomes a thirty-minute wait (how many times have you heard, “I’m sorry, sir, we’re just waiting for the party to finish their dessert”), there’s not enough gin in the world to solve that problem. Some may see it as, “Well, it’s only twenty extra minutes.” I see it as a 200% increase in my inconvenience.

But even if I didn’t have this intense line aversion, I still wouldn’t wait in line to eat at Han Dynasty, because it’s just not that good.

Oh, I know this flies in the face of most of my friends’ and colleagues’ opinions, and there have been plenty of glowing reviews of Han Dynasty. Recently, New York magazine’s Adam Platt declared that location one of the ten best new restaurants in New York City. But I think what I think.

Well, finally, someone has spoken the truth about Han Dynasty, and it’s none other than New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, whose review caught my attention because of its title, “Factoring In the Mystique of Long Lines.” (Otherwise, I would have just assumed that it was another rave review and not bothered reading it.)

In the New York Times review of Han Dynasty, Wells starts off noting that most of the time “when you see crowds of New Yorkers standing outside a bakery or putting their names on the list at the door of a restaurant, more often than not the food they’re hanging around for is worth eating.”

He finds three exceptions to this rule:

1) “…lines formed by tourists who trade their vacation days for a handful of cake crumbs under a waxy helmet of frosting on Bleecker Street.”

2) Brunch lines. “Be wary of the opinions of people who will endure hunger and hangovers for a free mimosa.” Amen, Pete. Amen.

3) And Han Dynasty, where, Wells notes, dinner line-waiting times have been at 45 minutes or more since it opened at the end of summer.

Wells writes that he is “mystified” by the lines at Han Dynasty, because there “are far better Sichuan restaurants” in New York. I’d agree, having had better-than-Han meals at Sichuan places like Szechuan Gourmet and La Vie En Szechuan, among others.

He finds Han Dynasty’s use of sugar and MSG excessive (the latter is “often used in great, slashing doses”), and the cumin lamb “anemic” and containing “floppy bands of meat.” In fact, the only thing that Wells seems to really like are the dry pepper chicken wings. “Still,” he says, “if I want Han Dynasty’s wings again, I’ll get delivery. A 45-minute wait for the doorbell to ring would be well within reason.”

Owner Chiang has said that he wants to open 100 new Han Dynasty locations in the next several years, and that’s great for him. I wish him all the success. And based on Jason Sheehan’s big feature on Chiang in the January issue of Philadelphia magazine, he does seem like a cool guy to hang out with. (Anthony Bourdain apparently thought so.)

But the idea that Han Dynasty is somehow revoluntionizing this city or any other city’s dining scene or that the food is the best there is, well, that’s just laughable. Most of the time, Han Dynasty is just mediocre, or, as Wells (nicely) grades it in his review, “satisfactory.”

That’s not to say that Chiang won’t become a very rich man serving mediocre plates of Sichuan food. After all, Outback does pretty well.