For a very non-Asian woman, I eat a LOT of Asian food. I try to cook most of it myself and frequent 99 Ranch Market and other Asian markets. My life long dream has been to go to culinary school in China. While I love Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food equally (I'm not as familiar with other ethnic foods from Asia) I have a special place in my heart for Chinese food. Perhaps it's because I'm in love with my wok that I bought from the Wok Shop in San Francisco. Or maybe it's my intense love for dim sum. Whatever the reason, I am obsessed with cooking (and eating, when I can) authentic Chinese food.
Despite this passion, I hadn't eaten authentic Chinese food besides dim sum until last weekend.
Whenever my husband and I venture down to San Diego (usually to go to Ikea, the Container Store, or 99 Ranch Market) we always plan to eat dinner down there. Unfortunately we often times eat the same thing on these outings(we love the Garden Grill on India St.) since we don't always know what restaurants are worth trying.
This time I had a plan. Armed with directions and notes from Kirk's website, my husband and I drove to Kearny Mesa to try the infamous Ba Ren. I say infamous because Kirk has posted on this restuarant so many times that it was clearly a winner. I trust Kirk's reviews as it's clear he's an expert on Asian cuisine (plus I agreed with his dim sum reviews so that was a sign that I could trust him).
When we pulled up the restaurant it was only a little past 5pm and the area looked fairly deserted. Plus the outside of the building is a bit suspect. The grey cement building isn't exactly welcoming.
My husband turned to me and said "Are you sure about this?"
Of course I was sure. Kirk SAID it's one of his favorite restaurants and he SAID it's authentic. In my household, Kirk is the god of all foods Asian.
So we walked into the dining room behind another couple that had just arrived only to find that the dining room was dark. Apparently the owners weren't expecting guests just yet. There was another family sitting in the dark room so at least we were comforted in knowing there were other people who liked this restaurant and were eating early.
The lights came on as soon as we sat down and the mood lightened.
We took a look at the menu and were immediately overwhelmed. The menu is 4 long pages of everything you could ever imagine (as far as Chinese food goes). There is a cold appetizer section, hot pots, dry fried dishes, meats/seafoods/poultry/veggies, soups, noodles, rice, an American-favorites menu (which I would NEVER order from at a place like this), and much more.
The cold appetizers can be ordered from the front of the restaurant where they keep the dishes ready-made in a cart. Clever idea for folks like me who can never wait until their food arrives to eat. This time we did not order appetizers since there were only two of us and we already had an idea what to order from Kirk's recommendations.
Based on the recommendations and the fact that I love hot dishes but my husband is a bit of a wimp when it comes to heat, we decided to order one spicy dish and one non-spicy dish. Since I LOVE spicy noodles but rarely ever find ones I like in American-style restaurants, we ordered the cold Sichuan noodles (knowing we would take some home as great leftovers). Our other two dishes were Stir-fried dry beef ($12.99) and Crispy Rice Crust with Prawns ($14.99).
The first thing to arrive was our spicy noodles. We were impressed immediately. There were ingredients resting on the top of the noodles that I couldn't even begin to guess. Okay, I'll guess. There might have been dried pork pieces in the noodles, msg? (I hope not but I think I saw some crystals that looked msg-ish), something crunchy that I really have never seen before, and scallions. The noodles were thin and somehow crisp in a way (not mushy in the slightest). While this dish is super hot, it's so flavorful that even a wimp (like my husband) will love it. For only $5.99 it's the perfect dish for leftovers and to order EVERY time. Oh yes, we WILL be back, and we WILL order this again.
Our next dish to arrive was the crispy rice crust with prawns. While I had an idea of what this dish was, I didn't realize that it's basically an entree version of Sizzling rice soup (sometimes found in Chinese restaurants). However, this doesn't really work as an entree. They bring out a huge bowl/plate of prawns, lilybuds, bamboo shoots, bok choy, mushrooms, and crispy rice squares (quite a few, too). Then they pour the broth on top and expect you to eat it with your chopsticks. Um, the broth is really important in this dish and all it did in this case was make the massive amounts of crispy rice mushy and clumpy. Not appetizing. The flavor of the broth was good but I couldn't appreciate the dish without a bowl and spoon (plus this was the first time I've had crispy rice get THAT mushy).
Speaking of utensils, I have to mention that not long after we sat down the waiter brought us forks. He did not, mind you, bring forks to any other patron in the restaurant. Needless to say, I was insulted.
Our waiter was nice and spoke English perfectly but I was disappointed that he didn't know what kind of tea we were drinking. I took the brand name label so that I can look at the store and try to guess but the tea was REALLY good and didn't taste the same as most Chinese restaurant teas (which tend to be Jasmine or Oolong). Watch, the tea will end up being one of the types I just mentioned!
Okay, back to the meal.
Our last dish was the stir-fried dry beef. This was probably the highlight of the meal for me (although my husband and I were still reeling from the noodles which we LOVED). The beef is dry-fried to lock in the beef flavor and make it chewy. Then it's stir-fried with mung bean sprouts (so good!), Chinese celery (it's a mini, more flavorful version of American celery), dried chilies, and red bell pepper. This dish is mildly spicy but you don't really notice due to the immense amount of flavor.
Despite my high tolerance for spice/heat, I did find that my lips and mouth were tingling by the end of the meal and I felt a bit, well, high. It was a good high. I'm guessing it was from the endorphines that my brain released since it thought I was on fire. What a meal, huh? Great taste, good price, and a buzz!
So, ladies and gentlemen, if you have not been to Ba Ren, you may miss out on the best Chinese food you've ever had. Be brave, be adventurous, and be prepared.
I'll be back to Ba Ren very soon. The Sichuan Cold Noodles are calling me.
Ba Ren 4957 Diane Ave., San Diego, CA 92117