Food Crush: General Tso-Style Cauliflower at HSL

Food Crush: [foōd KRUSH] noun. An intense infatuation with a specific dish or meal, to the point where an individual thinks about it all the time and may drool a little when it crosses their mind. For example, her food crush on tacos was well known, to the point that everyone knew if you gave her tacos, she would be happy. 

Yes, I regularly develop food crushes. Sometimes they come and go with the seasons and the seasons of life. Sometimes I think about a dish all the time, and I never get to have it again. But the crush abides. And sometimes, more than a brief infatuation, it will become an abiding love for a specific dish with a regular pilgrimage to get reacquainted with it. That is the case for this food crush—I’ve loved it for over eight years. That’s a long time in the food relationship world. And I want you to fall in love too. 

I’ve been a fan of Salt Lake City restaurant HSL (Handle Salt Lake) since they opened. In fact, I was at their opening party in April 2015, judging by my Instagram feed and the charcuterie board I posted that day. The highlight of that evening was a dish I’ve been raving about ever since. And I know I’m not alone. Listed simply as “Cauliflower” under the hot section of the menu, it has been a staple and a star in Chef Briar Handly’s repertoire. The minimalist description on the menu suggests that this dish might be more than just your standard cauliflower: “General Tso’s style | sriracha vinaigrette | pickled Fresno.” But even that hint isn’t enough to convey just how good this shared plate is. 

When the Cauliflower shows up on the table, you might mistake it for a salad—topped with fresh frisée, cilantro, thinly shaved carrots and bright red pickled chiles, it looks like a vibrantly wild, edible Bird-of-paradise flower in a bowl. Splashed over the top like paint is the sriracha vinaigrette. 

Salt Lake City Restaurant

Underneath the crisp-cool, raw vegetables are piping hot, battered, deep-fried cauliflower dressed in a General Tso’s-style sauce. When I say dressed, I mean lightly dressed so the breading doesn’t get soggy. For ultimate sauce dispersal control, there is a nice puddle of the sauce in the base of the bowl for dipping and scraping up. The cauliflower is tender-crisp and avoids the internal mushiness of many deep-fried vegetables. The contrast of the cold salad greens, the spicy sriracha, the tart-spicy pickled Fresno chilies (a signature of Chef Briar), and the warm, crunchy cauliflower is a well-executed balancing act. 

General Tso (Zuo Zongtang) was an actual general from the Hunan province of China in the 1800s, but he would never have sampled his namesake dish. Like any famed dish, the origin is as sticky as the sauce. It might have been derived from a simple chicken dish from the province with the word “zongtang” showing up in a same-spelling-different-meaning kind of way. The meaning of “ancestral meeting hall” may be a bit of a stretch. Still, food historians make a strong argument for the possibility. The other two possible originators were immigrant restaurateurs in New York City in the 1970s: Chef Peng Chang-kuei and Chef T. T. Wang. The origins of the current General Tso’s chicken recipe, known for its crispy fried meat, can be traced back to Chef Wang, who initially may have called it “General Ching’s chicken.” The more familiar name, “General Tso’s chicken,” is attributed to Chef Peng, who prepared the dish using a different cooking technique. Either way, it was always made with chicken and “sweet” with spicy to appeal to the wimpier (at the time) American palate. 

Chef Handley flips the notion that the dish must contain chicken to be toothsome. As a matter of fact, he has toned down the sticky sweet as well. A dish where you won’t miss the meat, still enjoy the heat and aren’t overpowered by the sweetness feels refreshing. I wouldn’t call it “elevated” because I hate that term and its racially-charged connotations that something traditional wasn’t great to begin with. But it is a playfully vegetal homage where you might ask, “What chicken?” And you might just fall in love to boot. It is well worth the trip to HSL for this dish alone. 

If You Go…

HSL (Handle Salt Lake, 418 E.200 South, SLC, 801-539-9999) 
Reservations are recommended


Find more of Lydia’s crushes at Salt Lake City restaurants here!

Lydia Martinez
Lydia Martinezhttp://www.saltlakemgazine.com
Lydia Martinez is a freelance food, travel, and culture writer. She has written for Salt Lake Magazine, Suitcase Foodist, and Utah Stories. She is a reluctantly stationary nomad who mostly travels to eat great food. She is a sucker for anything made with lots of butter and has been known to stay in bed until someone brings her coffee. Do you have food news? Send tips to lydia@saltlakemagazine.com

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