Neal Santos

 

  When it comes to DanDan, everybody has the same question. Sitting on the second floor of this slick double-decker Sichuan spot wedged like a narrow paperback into a library of storefronts on 16th Street, I posed it to my chipper server: “So what is DanDan’s relation to Han Dynasty?”

“I get asked this a lot,” she laughed/lamented/screamed. In the upstairs dining room jammed with university kids and unforgiving metal surfaces, the noise level could qualify as assault, and I had to strain to hear her answer. But here’s the deal: Husband and wife Kevin and Cat Huang own DanDan. They used to operate Han Dynasty’s University City location. Cat is also Han Dynasty owner Han Chiang’s sister.

The similarities between Dan and Han are striking. On both menus you’ll find spicy, crispy cucumbers for $6.95, dumplings in chile oil for $6.95, dry pepper shrimp for $20.95, cumin-style lamb for $16.95. The twinning is so evident, it’s hard to evaluate DanDan as its own independent restaurant instead of simply a Rittenhouse branch of Han Dynasty.

Over the course of my meal, on the balcony overlooking floating paper lanterns and a bar, I did find some differences. From the “Specialties of the House” section of the menu, the spicy and sour rib-eye pot, while neither very spicy nor very sour, was definitely not something I’d had before. It turned out to be a big bowl of glass noodles, pickled mustard greens and enoki mushrooms in a canary-colored broth crowned with dried chilies, cilantro and thinly sliced rib eye. The tenderness of the frilly shaved beef brought to mind cheesesteak meat, not in a bad way; I mostly just picked that off the surface.

But the central difference between DanDan and Han Dynasty is the absence of heat. Dan’s spicy, crispy cucumbers should have been colder in temperature and hotter in spice, while the pleasantly chewy dumplings barely made me break a sweat. The restaurant’s namesake dan dan noodles were so tame, I thought I’d ordered the cold sesame noodles by mistake. On the menu’s burn index of 1 to 5, both the rib-eye pot and the cauldron of green peppercorn hot sauce-style pork I tried are listed as 4s. They were 1s.

I set down my chopsticks with a lot of food still left on the table. “Was the spice level OK, too hot?” the server asked as she cleared, then made a funny admission: “I really don’t eat spicy food.” She’s working at the right restaurant.