4957 Diane Avenue, Kearny Mesa
Who’ll be the winner of Szechuan Idol? The two local finalists for the most authentic Szechuan food in San Diego are Ba Ren and Dede’s. After thoroughly enjoying Dede’s (reviewed 10/22/08), I was eager to try its main rival.
Ba Ren is cuter, resembling a quaint cottage with its fenced-off patio with several large tables, heat stanchions, and a teriyaki grill where one of the staffers was cooking meats as we arrived. Indoors is pleasant and bright, the tables well spaced, chair seats covered in red brocade.
Except…there’s a huge flat-screen TV on one wall of the dining room, muted but totally distracting. These huge TVs are egregious in any restaurant but a sports bar, but they’re especially counterproductive at sushi bars (where they’re proliferating) and Chinese restaurants. With sushi, you’re supposed to concentrate on the exquisite flavors of each roll, right? As for Chinese restaurants, they’ve traditionally been places for families (by blood or friendship) to bond over shared meals, enjoying the delicious food and conversation. But a TV on the wall draws all eyes, as our corporate Big Brothers do their mesmeric magic to make us stupid and sell us stuff we don’t need.
The menu is a tome, going on for pages, with House Specials, Featured Specials, Chung King Casseroles, Boiled Dishes, Dry-Cooked Dishes, Teepan Yaki, Dishes with Pickled Peppers, Crispy Rice Crust dishes, plus meats, poultry, veggies, soups, and — an afterthought — America’s Favorites. On San Diego’s typical multiregional Chinese menus, most of this last category consists of compromised dishes usually called Szechuanese (including Kung Pao), plus some indifferent renditions (from what I’ve read on weblogs) of Chinese-American standards.
You’ll find few other familiar dishes on Ba Ren’s menu. Szechuan fare rarely makes it onto mainstream Chinese menus. The province, in southwestern China, across the mountains from Tibet, is hilly, fertile, and foggy — chilly and wet in winter, gray and muggy in summer. In Chinese medicinal gastronomy, hot peppers are considered healthy (warming and drying) to eat in wet climates. Hence, Szechuan’s incendiary fare. The hot chilies take a multitude of forms in this region — fresh, pickled, dried, flaked, infused in heated oil, or bashed and pulverized into condiment mixes. (Hot peppers, which take little growing space, are nutritional bombshells, exploding with vitamins A and C and possibly some antibiotic action.)
Spicy dishes are noted on the menu with a chili symbol. Unfortunately, unlike Dede’s — which designates a range of one to three chilies — there’s only the one icon. When you order, you can specify “hot” or “medium.” Eat elsewhere if you want “mild.”
With six you get eggroll, right? Sam gathered a sextet: Ted and Chengdu-born April (who ate with us at Dede’s), posse irregular Cheryl (just back from Beijing), and another Chengdu native — nicknamed “X” at her job because that’s what her name starts with, and the rest is difficult to spell and pronounce. A few minutes later, in blew more of Sam’s friends — Chris and her angelic little girl Carly (about five, with her own pastel trainer-set of chopsticks). “We come here once a week,” said Chris, a linguist and world traveler. She’s training Carly to have a fearless palate for ethnic foods (although not much hot pepper yet). We happily scrunched our chairs around to make room for two more.
April went to the cold bins in front and picked us out a chilled appetizer. She chose a delicious dish of tripe (not an oxymoron). If you didn’t know, you’d assume it was...I dunno, some kind of Asian mushroom or maybe jellyfish. The white, curly meat was a lovely light orange, from hot pepper oil, and had a smooth, bouncy texture and clean, neutral flavor. It came with some mysterious dark, flat meat (like a dry ham) and a riotous salad of greens and edamame. I don’t normally like tripe, but this rendition won me over. It’s nothing like the funky western versions (must admit I don’t even like the Mexican hangover cure, menudo): it’s all about the fun of texture — Chinese cooks of all regions and economic strata value interesting textures as much as tastes, one of the reasons Chinese cuisine is considered, worldwide, the main rival to French in overall greatness; everything remotely edible is enjoyed and cleverly sauced. My not-so-secret agenda is to coax you all to try anything that I try, but even in person, I didn’t succeed with the whole posse. Two guei-lo adults and one kiddie declined even a taste of the tripe. Their loss.
All the food hit the table nearly at once, delivered in thirds at five-minute intervals. With the vibrant reds and greens, it looked like a Christmas display. Expecting more modest portions, we’d over-ordered. A word from the wised-up: if you want to try a lot of dishes, get only a few at a time. Then order more, once you’re partway through those you’ve got.
I was determined to try several dishes from the House Specials and Featured Specials. First puzzle: what’s the Woo Jiang fish versus the Tong-Nan Tai-An fish? Neither of the Szechuanese at the table had ever heard of them by those names. Turns out, Woo Jiang is soupy, Tong-Nan is saucy. We ordered the latter, the evening’s best dish, with velvety, remarkably sweet-tasting bite-size fish-fillet pieces among numerous veggies in a moderately spicy sauce that registers as creamy, even without cream.
We’d have liked to try the special Steamed Whole Squash with Pork (a hollowed-out kabocha filled with pork and sesame), but it takes three hours and must be special-ordered ahead. But Sichuan Pot Roast was available. “Wow, this is a lot better than Mom’s pot roast,” I said at first taste. It’s essentially a soup of soothing meat broth with tender shreds of pork and a tangle of noodles — mouth-relief for potential hot-pepper ODs — and unspeakably great on its own. The doggie box proved full of additional revelations and treasures that didn’t show up in my first bowl at the restaurant, including tender puffs of ground meat, like meatballs that had backed off from committing to full size and texture. This goes into the ranks of the great soups of San Diego, equivalent to homemade Jewish mother chicken soup.