Hao’s offers B.C. lots of lamb, in all of its obscure cuts and spicy preparations – The Globe and Mail

by Alexandra Gill

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The hipster chefs in Gastown have nothing on Hao’s Lamb Restaurant. I don’t want to hear another prideful boast about their ethical, whole-beast, sustainable snout-to-tail cooking until they start serving organic, certified heritage-pork penis. (Hark, do you hear the sound of 100 skinny-jean-packaged egos shrinking?)

Yes, I ate lamb penis (twice in the past month), along with thinly shaved mutton sandwiched between sweet sesame buns, a dark and sticky soy-glazed rack of lamb, various lamb soups and a show-stopping roasted lamb leg, spiralled on the bone and chopped at the table.

Hao’s Lamb Restaurant in Richmond, which opened six months ago, hails from Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in northwest China. One of the country’s oldest cities, it is at the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. In addition to being home to the Terracotta Army sculptures, Xi’an is famous for its long, wide, hand-stretched biangbiang noodles, hot-and-sour dumplings, smoky flatbreads and lamb – lots and lots of lamb, in all its obscure cuts and spicy preparations, thanks to the region’s large Muslim population.

I went to Hao’s for the first time with the judges from the Chinese Restaurant Awards, which I have joined this year. Because the awards are based on specific dish categories, we were there for lamb and that is mostly what we ate. This is not the best way for regular diners to enjoy a meal. It’s too greasy and monotonous. The palate eventually goes numb under the heavy assault of salt, chili, garlic, cumin and dried Sichuan peppers.

So I returned for a second visit with my fellow judge, Lee Man, who speaks enough Mandarin to assemble a more balanced meal at this simple, yet tastefully decorated family-style restaurant. The owners and servers are tremendously friendly and welcoming to diners who are not mainland Chinese (they also love taking photos of diners taking food photos), but their English and Cantonese are limited. Fortunately, the menu is printed in both English and Mandarin. Go with five to seven people so you can sample a large variety (including the signature, and massive, roast lamb leg). When ordering, the key is to ensure a good mix of cold, hot, spicy, salty, sour and soothing dishes.

Start with some cold-pickled dishes, many of which are displayed in the front counter. Be sure to try the smashed cucumbers, cut into thick wedges and lightly bludgeoned with a cleaver so the tangy, minced-garlic sludge clings to every nook and cranny.

You will definitely want to try the spicy peanuts, which are soaked in some sort of brine until they swell but retain their crunchiness, lightly dressed in oil, sliced jalapenos and chopped Sichuan pepper husk. (These are the beer nuts of Xi’an cuisine.) Also, don’t miss the braised Napa cabbage, bright and slippery, with a light splash of vinegar and a touch of sesame oil. (Keep some in reserve because this dish really freshens the palate when eaten with the lamb.)

If you have a large group, you might want to add the cold-soy chicken. The flesh is darker (almost milk-chocolate brown) than most Cantonese soy chickens, and subtly infused with warm-spiced cinnamon and clove. Or the stir-fried mung bean jelly with pickled chiles, slivered green-garlic stems and lightly cooked egg (the latter lends the dish a silky meatiness).

Those who are feeling exceptionally adventurous could try the lamb testicles, which are displayed in the front counter and look like spongy tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelettes). But the genitalia meats are not meant to be novelties, as they are in some Beijing restaurants (google Guolizhuang Restaurant). “Fried Orine Genital” (lamb penis) will likely satisfy your curiosity.

“They’re so small!” a surprised member of our group cried. One order includes dozens of thin penis morsels, all average finger-sized in length and girth. Some are bent, others are twisted into knots. The organs, sourced locally and from New Zealand, start off as 10-inch links, but are sliced into smaller pieces. They have a slightly chewy texture, almost like mochi or jellied pig ear. You might encounter the odd offally piece in the mix. But having likely been blanched several times, they don’t really taste much like anything, other than the green onions, garlic and chilis with which they are stir-fried. Oh, and the twisted spirals? Those are sweet crackers, not penis.

Curiosity sated, you can dive into the sensationally good lamb dishes. Baked sesame cake with mutton is the best lamb sandwich, ever. The salty meat is sliced thin, almost like pastrami, and served in a sweet, warm sesame flatbread (baked in-house) that has been spread under the top layer with some sort of compound anise-butter. Order two baskets. Trust me, they’re that tasty.

The lamb leg is a show dish that must be ordered in advance. It arrives at the table on a large wooden platter with red flag waving. The huge hunk of meat is warm and smoky, having been rubbed with cumin and chili and spiralled on the bone so the meat windmills into smaller crispy strips perfect for tearing. The owner says it is cooked over charcoal, which created a huge debate on both visits, as there was no char. It is likely roasted on a rotisserie and then flash-fried whole in a large wok to order. However it was cooked, it was delicious – but slightly overdone the first time. You might want it order it rare. And ask your server to skip the massage, which they do at the table after chopping the leg into bite-sized morsels. Although the rub helps coat all inner meat pieces with the outer spices, it also seems to squeeze out some of the natural juices.

Full? Ha, you’re not done yet. I strongly suggest you save room for a big bowl of “nutritious stewed noodles with mutton.” One of the chef’s specialties, it’s a thick lamb-broth soup stewed with angelica or female ginseng, which comes with ribboned tofu and beautifully supple, slightly chewy, wide-cut hand-pulled noodles. This a traditional finish to a classic Xi’an meal, and a soothing balance to all the salt and spice. It makes for a very happy ending, so to speak.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this review included an incorrect address for Hao’s Lamb Restaurant. The address has been corrected to 1180-8788 McKim Way.