4957 Diane Avenue, San Diego
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.
Wandering deeper into the pages, there’s a section of stir-fries with Szechuan pickled peppers. We chose lamb, which arrived in tender slices with crunchy black tree-ears and a riot of veggies. The pickled peppers, chopped, are a vibrant red, slightly sour, and salty as well as hot.
Saltier than the lamb is a dish of Chinese bacon with garlic sprouts. (April was surprised I ordered it: “That’s very Chinese food!”) The bacon is cured with soy sauce and is chewier. But I wasn’t thrilled with Ba Ren’s rendition because instead of young garlic sprouts, which are currently in season, they substituted tough leek greens along with a huge array of green jalapeños and red peppers. I expected it to be milder and simpler, highlighting the bacon (Hong Kong Cantonese style), rather than drowning it, but it was yet another extravaganza of heat and ingredients.
April suggested an order of Dry-Fried Chicken, and X enthusiastically concurred. The chicken consists of chopped chunks of dark meat, bone in. “We like the bone because there’s more flavor that way,” said X. “And we only like the parts of chicken that do some work, so they develop flavor,” said April. “We don’t understand why Americans like chicken breast, it’s so dry and bland,” said X. “Because the breast doesn’t move,” said April, blushing. “We call that ‘dead meat,’ while the parts that move and have flavor are ‘live meat.’ ” We all chomped and sucked away for a bit. “This has the most bone I ever had in this dish. It’s in every bite,” April said. The surface was red and oily; under it was a snarl of bean sprouts with big yellow heads, shiitake mushrooms, garlic slices, green jalapeño slices, and fried, dried red peppers. I must admit I liked this better as a doggie bag, when I could eat at home with my hands to heart’s content.
Initially, we wanted to order a featured specialty called Beer Duck, but the waitress warned us off, telling us it was too similar to the Pot Roast. Instead we chose Ginger-Braised Duck. It, in turn, brought garnishes and flavors similar to those of the lamb, minus the pickled peppers — not just duck and ginger with perhaps some greens, as it might have been cooked in Hong Kong, but red peppers, green jalapeños, varied veggies, et al. The whole meal, with a few exceptions, was all starting to seem like a single very spicy dish.
In hindsight, I think we probably should have ordered one of the Crispy Rice dishes (similar to the classic sizzling rice soup, which may be more familiar from nonregional Chinese eateries), to guarantee more variations in texture and flavor. Like that gorgeous pot roast, they would probably spotlight the kitchen’s soup-stocks.
If you’re wondering how a little kid (Chris’s daughter Carly) was handling all this spicy food — she didn’t have to. She did take a few bites from Mom’s plate, pronouncing, “Spicy!” But purely by happenstance, our order included her favorite dishes. Eggplant in brown sauce could be anyone’s favorite: a rich, comforting stew of firm-tender eggplant pieces served in a clay casserole. And the dry-cooked green beans are fresh and bright green, dusted with sesame seeds and scallions. We also tried sautéed potato strips, a dish April’s mom prepares at home: long, julienned strips of potato sautéed semi-soft before being dressed in vinegar and peppers. “It’s not as good as Mom’s,” said April. (It’s also not as good as Dede’s version.)
Finally, the climax of the meal — or of a scary movie — Chong Qing Hot Pot, possibly Ba Ren’s most famous dish. It begins with an alarming red-orange liquid with a slick of oil on top. Underneath are sweet bites of fish fillet, bites of pork and beef, slices of pork kidney cut to look like shiitake slices, plus tree-ears, Asian mushrooms, Nappa cabbage, scallions, rice noodles, and hordes of hot red peppers, their fiery seeds spreading through it all. Tasting from the top, your palate first encounters the chili oil. Then some heat in the broth, and a lot of salt, which quickly dissipates. Then the heat explodes. “Ma-la! Hot-numbing!” I exclaimed, as my taste buds encountered the results of hidden Szechuan pepper. This is one that all but born-to-it fire-eaters should probably request “medium.” And even then, don’t try it as a soup — spoon the solids out over plenty of rice.
There’s another category we didn’t delve into here that we loved at Dede’s, the “Boiled” dishes. These are not New England boiled dinners. Aside from the hot pot, they’re the spiciest entrées on the menu. And they’re very much worth trying, with the same provisos: don’t try drinking the broths from soup bowls, but spoon out the contents onto your rice or you’ll be sorry.
Both Ba Ren and Dede’s have their own devotees. Chris is clearly a Ba Ren fan, and X seems to tend toward it, while April and Ted seem more inclined to Dede’s. By the end of the meal, so did Sam and I. Both restaurants are highly economical: our dinner for eight, including beers, cost $160, and the doggie bags would have fed another octet. The food here seems less varied in flavor (despite, or maybe because, of the huge menu) and perhaps a trifle less carefully prepared. Yet, dare I say that on the basis of a mere 10 dishes? That leaves 240 more yet to taste, and I’d be thrilled to go back and eat more!
Ba Ren Szechuan
4957 Diane Avenue (between Clairemont Mesa Boulevard and Conrad Avenue), Kearny Mesa, 858-279-2520. No website, but online menu (slightly outdated) at http://858-279-2520.chinesemenu.com.
HOURS: Seven days, officially 11:00 a.m.–midnight, but on weeknights closing is more usually at 9:00 p.m.
PRICES: Most entrées $8–$15.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: About 250 authentic, mostly spicy Szechuanese specialties, plus some American favorites at the back of the menu. Beer only.
PICK HITS: Husband and Wife Tripe Salad from cold-case; Tong-Nan Tai-An Fish Fillet; Sichuan Pot Roast (mild); Stir-fried Lamb with Pickled Pepper; Eggplant in Brown Sauce (mild).
NEED TO KNOW: Cuisine is spicy, but diners can specify “medium” to tone it down. Entrées large enough to serve at least two. Plenty of vegan stir-fry choices (but for braises ask about sauces, which may be based on non-veg soup stocks). Most staffers speak sufficient English and are sympathetic to your struggles. For a large order, best to get a few dishes at a time, then order more; otherwise, they all arrive at once. Small restaurant, reserve in weeks following review.