I was excited to finally write about Spicy City. Hidden at the back of a Kearny Mesa strip mall, you'd hardly know it's there. Their modest, bland signage belies the vibrant and spicy food they serve.
Spicy City specializes in bona fide Szechuan cooking. Unlike restaurants that claim to serve Szechuan food, Spicy City is the first I've encountered that uses ingredients like Szechuan peppercorns, which boast an unusual herbal flavor.
Spicy City offers two menus-one in English and one in Chinese. Unfortunately, I do not read Chinese, nor do I know anyone who does, but the food I've ordered from the English menu has been great.
I'm not sure how much of a difference really exists between the two menus, anyway, as the English menu has items like sizzling kidney, pork ear and the frightening-sounding Mao Xie Wang-hot spicy pork blood with black sea cucumber. Not exactly something you're likely to see at Pick Up Stix.
On our most recent visit, we sampled the Szechuan pickled vegetables, the Ma Po Tofu and the Gan Bian Shredded Beef. Our server cautioned us about the vegetables, reminding us that they're pickled but are not like the pickles we're used to-these are made from cauliflower, carrots and celery. It sounded like Italian giardinera to my ears, so we went ahead and ordered it.
Now I understood why she warned us. Marinated in rice vinegar and dressed with hot chili sesame oil, the pickles were pungent and spicy. I was only able to handle a few pieces; the rest are sitting in my fridge at home (where they'll likely remain until they spoil, at which point I'll throw them out-my way of avoiding feeling bad for wasting food).
The other dishes were awesome. The Ma Po Tofu is cubes of soft tofu, dressed in a spicy brown sauce seasoned liberally with hot chili sesame oil and white pepper. More of a slow burn with this dish-you can eat a lot of it before you realize how much pain you're in.
The beef dish consisted of thin strips of beef, battered and fried crisp, with shredded carrots, green onions, Szechuan peppercorns and dried red chilies. The fried beef was very crispy, with hints of smokiness in the flavor. It, too, was a slow burner, with the peppercorns adding a distinctive bite.Prices are low, with shrimp dishes the most expensive at $13. This is a popular place, so be prepared to wait if you go at dinnertime. Spicy City is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.