Ba Ren Restaurant
4957 Diane Ave.
Normally, blogs hold about as much interest for me as does Hometown Buffet. I have plenty of political opinions of my own; I certainly can't be bothered with somebody else's. Food blogs, however, can be pretty damn useful. They can be a great source for word-of-mouth recommendations, especially if your friends' tastes tend toward the pedestrian. It was thanks to food blogger Kirk that I found my way to Ba Ren Restaurant.
Located on a Clairemont side street, Ba Ren is an authentic Szechuan restaurant offering an alternative to those tired of the long wait at nearby Spicy City.
If your idea of great Chinese food is Pick-Up Stix, then read no further-real Szechuan cuisine is challenging food that can be quite spicy. Most all of Ba Ren's menu items are adorned with the chili-pepper icon. However, there's more to this food than just fire; there's also great depth of flavor.
Ba Ren makes liberal use of Szechuan peppercorns in their food. Peppercorn in this case is something of a misnomer, since this spice isn't related to pepper at all. Its flavor is hard to describe, but it makes me think of a cross between anise and mint, with a tongue-numbing quality thrown in for good measure.
Ba Ren's menu is huge-533 items huge, to be precise-subdivided into a number of categories including soups, appetizers, dry-cooked dishes, various meat and vegetable dishes and a section on the back called "Americans Favorites" where the sweet and sour, fried rice and chow mein dishes live. Needless to say, we bypassed that section.
Determined to try something new, we ordered Dry-Cooked Lamb, Ma Po Tofu, Crispy Rice Crust With Scallop, Quick Fried Soy Milk Sheets and Braised Eel Casserole. In a nod to the conventional, we also ordered some Kung Pao Chicken.
One of the biggest differences between Ba Ren's dishes and those found at an Americanized Chinese place is the way the peppers are treated. The Americanized places leave the long peppers intact, so they can be easily spotted and removed.
Contrast that with Ba Ren, where the chilies were chopped up and liberally mixed into the dish, making their removal virtually impossible. Consequently, items like Kung Pao Chicken are on fire, especially when compared to the bland versions served elsewhere. The sauce was thin, not thick, lightly enrobing the chunks of chicken with the flavors of sesame oil, garlic, vinegar and white pepper.
Another dish abundant with peppers was the dry-cooked lamb, which was also the prettiest dish served. A wok-shaped metal serving dish was heaped with a generous mound of thin-sliced lamb, mung bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, cilantro leaves and celery, studded with chopped chili peppers and Szechuan peppercorns.
This was far and away the spiciest dish we sampled, with the heat coming in waves. You can taste the hot chili sesame oil, chili peppers and a pronounced black-pepper flavor-at least until your tongue numbs from the peppercorns. The dry-cooking method means the dish isn't sauced; instead the meat and vegetable juices provide all the liquid.
This was an incredible dish. The strong flavor of the lamb slices stood up well to the onslaught of heat. Another nice thing about this dish was the quality of the vegetables. The shiitake mushrooms were plump and tender, the mung bean sprouts very fresh. Make sure not to pass up this triumph of texture and flavor.
Alas, not everything we picked was a grand slam. The braised eel casserole, for example, while tasty, was a bit one-dimensional. Here, thin strips of eel meat were cooked in a ceramic casserole with cellophane noodles and a nice Szechuan peppercorn seasoned broth. The tastes melded quite a bit, though, and we couldn't really taste the individual components.
The oddest thing we had was the Quick Fried Soy Milk Sheets. I kind of liked them, though my date said their texture made her think she was eating deflated balloons. That's a pretty apt description, but I liked the unusual texture and the distinct green-onion taste.
Ba Ren has a lot to offer the adventurous diner seeking a truly exotic experience. Just be prepared to spend a long time settling on what to eat. Prices are moderate, with dishes averaging $10 for entrées and climbing to $14 for some of the seafood items. Ba Ren is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.