Enter the Dragon! I am breathing fire after enjoying the spicy cuisine of Szechuan every night for a week. One of my favorite occasional email pen-pals, a UCSD social science prof (another expat New Yorker), disclosed that he was heading for a sabbatical in New York City. I waxed enthusiastic about the explosion of regional Chinese restaurants in the borough of Queens (think Tierrasanta, but bigger, denser, poorer, and totally international). He responded that he and his Mandarin-speaking wife feel that San Diego holds its own — that the food at DeDe's and Ba Ren in Kearny Mesa are more authentic and tasty than any of the famous Szechuan restaurants they've previously tried in Manhattan.
I'd seen raves for both restaurants on several food blogs, but coming from someone whose palate I personally trust, this one sent me into action. My buddy Sam, who grew up on spicy Korean food, would have no problem with authentic Szechuanese heat levels, and better yet, he invited his old pal Ted and Ted's Szechuan-born wife April, who would prove an invaluable guide. Thanks to her, we tried numerous dishes I never would have thought of ordering. Two other friends backed out of dinner at the last minute, but never mind — we ordered enough for them, their entire clans, and even the horses they didn't ride in on. The bill was just piddling, half the cost of a happy-hour grazing meal at any Hillcrest bistro: Figure about $20 per person for a feast, especially if you bring along some extra mouths to feed and share with. (With six you don't get egg roll, but you have a chance to spread out and adventure — do some real budget travel.)
DeDe's proves to be a reasonably nice, medium-size restaurant, neither palace nor dive. The floor is carpeted, but the room is noisy in a convivial way, including lots of families eating with kids. (No, there is no kiddie menu! In the rest of the civilized world, children learn to be civilized by eating regular food.)
But you need to know that the genuine Szechuan cooking at DeDe's bears no resemblance to the lackluster, compromised "Szechuanese" dishes on San Diego's typical multiregional Chinese mish-mosh menus. In southwestern China, just across the mountains from Tibet, hilly Szechuan is highly fertile but perpetually foggy — chilly and wet in winter, gray and muggy in summer. In Chinese medicinal gastronomy, hot peppers are considered especially healthy (warming and drying) to eat in wet climates. The Szechuanese have taken this prescription to heart.
Many restaurants of "spicy" ethnicities will ask how hot you want the food, but if you're American, they may ignore your answer to give you no hotter than three on a scale of ten. At DeDe's, you will instead find an accurate measure right on the menu, which graphically depicts the dishes on a scale of zero to three chilies. They're not going to detune the food for foreign tastes but will cook the dishes as they should be cooked and trust you to decide how much spice you can tolerate. The hot chilies take a multitude of forms in this region — fresh, pickled, dried, flaked, infusing heated oil, or bashed and pulverized into condiment mixes.
While you don't have to order such a preponderance of spicy dishes as we did (there are plenty of milder choices on the menu), many of the most authentic regional dishes are not just spicy — they're vibrant, riveting, a wake-up call for the mouth. And, oh yeah, some of the classic dishes include animal parts that Westerners scorn as "offal." Chinese people don't waste food the way Americans do. Did the last Manchu Empress (with the nine-inch gilded nails) eat tripe and tendons and kidneys, and relish them, too? As the lipsticked female pit bull might say, "You betcha!" With great cooking, all food becomes good food.
For our first course, we enjoyed a silk purse (figurative) made of (literal) sow's ears. The menu offers a choice of three cold appetizers for $6, which you pick out at a glassed-in counter in the back of the dining room. We delegated the choice to April, of course. Texture is a strong value in Chinese cuisine: Gourmands (and even peasants are gourmands) of every region are enchanted by variations in softness, chewiness, sponginess, bounciness, etc., as much as by variations in taste. Pig's ears, sliced ultra-thin, had a delightful silky-firm chewiness and a pleasant mild piggy flavor spiked by a splash of hot chili oil. "Husband and wife" (not named for the contents of the dish but for a married pair of street vendors who apparently invented this specialty in Chengdu in the 1930s) traditionally marries tender beef slices with beef organ meat — here, resilient, bouncy beef tendon (similar in texture to Chinese "tree-ear" or "wood-ear" mushrooms).
A seaweed salad was clean and refreshing, and the counterperson, perhaps enchanted by April's delicate beauty, added a fourth taste, a tart pickled cucumber and baby fava bean salad. I was surprised to find these Mediterranean beans on an Asian menu, but Fuchsia Dunlop, in her new, definitive Szechuanese cookbook, Land of Plenty, notes that favas reached Szechuan long ago and are the favored beans in regional preparations, both as vegetables and as the basis of the local version of the staple condiment of "chili bean paste."
I had to order hot and sour soup (#46 on the menu) — I haven't had a good one at a restaurant in over a decade. DeDe's rendition is a little more hot than sour, judiciously thickened with cornstarch to a mouth-filling, satiny texture and loaded with lengths of soothing soft tofu, strips of rehydrated wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Chinese leeks. It was like meeting a dear old friend again.
From the list of "House Specials," April chose stir-fried pork kidney with vegetables (#6), which according to Dunlop is one of the region's greatest specialties, literally translated as "fire-exploded kidney flowers." "Wow, pork kidneys are so much nicer than veal kidneys," I noted. Partly, it's that pig organs seem to taste gentler than bovine innards; if you get a chance to try pork liver sometime, you'll be amazed. But another secret to this dish is that the strong-tasting dark centers of the kidneys are carefully cut out and discarded, ridding them of, um, overly intimate bodily flavors. Stir-fried swiftly at the highest possible heat, to keep them from overcooking, the small pieces of meat were rich and tender-firm, balanced by an array of chopped Chinese celery, tree-ear slices, and flower-cut carrot slices. If you have leftovers, eat them at room temperature — nuking at any power destroys the precious texture of the kidneys.