Heat Lightning

Enter the Dragon! I am breathing fire after enjoying the spicy cuisine of Szechuan every night for a week. One of my favorite occasional email pen-pals, a UCSD social science prof (another expat New Yorker), disclosed that he was heading for a sabbatical in New York City. I waxed enthusiastic about the explosion of regional Chinese restaurants in the borough of Queens (think Tierrasanta, but bigger, denser, poorer, and totally international). He responded that he and his Mandarin-speaking wife feel that San Diego holds its own — that the food at DeDe's and Ba Ren in Kearny Mesa are more authentic and tasty than any of the famous Szechuan restaurants they've previously tried in Manhattan.

I'd seen raves for both restaurants on several food blogs, but coming from someone whose palate I personally trust, this one sent me into action. My buddy Sam, who grew up on spicy Korean food, would have no problem with authentic Szechuanese heat levels, and better yet, he invited his old pal Ted and Ted's Szechuan-born wife April, who would prove an invaluable guide. Thanks to her, we tried numerous dishes I never would have thought of ordering. Two other friends backed out of dinner at the last minute, but never mind — we ordered enough for them, their entire clans, and even the horses they didn't ride in on. The bill was just piddling, half the cost of a happy-hour grazing meal at any Hillcrest bistro: Figure about $20 per person for a feast, especially if you bring along some extra mouths to feed and share with. (With six you don't get egg roll, but you have a chance to spread out and adventure — do some real budget travel.)

DeDe's proves to be a reasonably nice, medium-size restaurant, neither palace nor dive. The floor is carpeted, but the room is noisy in a convivial way, including lots of families eating with kids. (No, there is no kiddie menu! In the rest of the civilized world, children learn to be civilized by eating regular food.)

But you need to know that the genuine Szechuan cooking at DeDe's bears no resemblance to the lackluster, compromised "Szechuanese" dishes on San Diego's typical multiregional Chinese mish-mosh menus. In southwestern China, just across the mountains from Tibet, hilly Szechuan is highly fertile but perpetually foggy — chilly and wet in winter, gray and muggy in summer. In Chinese medicinal gastronomy, hot peppers are considered especially healthy (warming and drying) to eat in wet climates. The Szechuanese have taken this prescription to heart.

Many restaurants of "spicy" ethnicities will ask how hot you want the food, but if you're American, they may ignore your answer to give you no hotter than three on a scale of ten. At DeDe's, you will instead find an accurate measure right on the menu, which graphically depicts the dishes on a scale of zero to three chilies. They're not going to detune the food for foreign tastes but will cook the dishes as they should be cooked and trust you to decide how much spice you can tolerate. The hot chilies take a multitude of forms in this region — fresh, pickled, dried, flaked, infusing heated oil, or bashed and pulverized into condiment mixes.

While you don't have to order such a preponderance of spicy dishes as we did (there are plenty of milder choices on the menu), many of the most authentic regional dishes are not just spicy — they're vibrant, riveting, a wake-up call for the mouth. And, oh yeah, some of the classic dishes include animal parts that Westerners scorn as "offal." Chinese people don't waste food the way Americans do. Did the last Manchu Empress (with the nine-inch gilded nails) eat tripe and tendons and kidneys, and relish them, too? As the lipsticked female pit bull might say, "You betcha!" With great cooking, all food becomes good food.

For our first course, we enjoyed a silk purse (figurative) made of (literal) sow's ears. The menu offers a choice of three cold appetizers for $6, which you pick out at a glassed-in counter in the back of the dining room. We delegated the choice to April, of course. Texture is a strong value in Chinese cuisine: Gourmands (and even peasants are gourmands) of every region are enchanted by variations in softness, chewiness, sponginess, bounciness, etc., as much as by variations in taste. Pig's ears, sliced ultra-thin, had a delightful silky-firm chewiness and a pleasant mild piggy flavor spiked by a splash of hot chili oil. "Husband and wife" (not named for the contents of the dish but for a married pair of street vendors who apparently invented this specialty in Chengdu in the 1930s) traditionally marries tender beef slices with beef organ meat — here, resilient, bouncy beef tendon (similar in texture to Chinese "tree-ear" or "wood-ear" mushrooms).

A seaweed salad was clean and refreshing, and the counterperson, perhaps enchanted by April's delicate beauty, added a fourth taste, a tart pickled cucumber and baby fava bean salad. I was surprised to find these Mediterranean beans on an Asian menu, but Fuchsia Dunlop, in her new, definitive Szechuanese cookbook, Land of Plenty, notes that favas reached Szechuan long ago and are the favored beans in regional preparations, both as vegetables and as the basis of the local version of the staple condiment of "chili bean paste."

I had to order hot and sour soup (#46 on the menu) — I haven't had a good one at a restaurant in over a decade. DeDe's rendition is a little more hot than sour, judiciously thickened with cornstarch to a mouth-filling, satiny texture and loaded with lengths of soothing soft tofu, strips of rehydrated wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Chinese leeks. It was like meeting a dear old friend again.

From the list of "House Specials," April chose stir-fried pork kidney with vegetables (#6), which according to Dunlop is one of the region's greatest specialties, literally translated as "fire-exploded kidney flowers." "Wow, pork kidneys are so much nicer than veal kidneys," I noted. Partly, it's that pig organs seem to taste gentler than bovine innards; if you get a chance to try pork liver sometime, you'll be amazed. But another secret to this dish is that the strong-tasting dark centers of the kidneys are carefully cut out and discarded, ridding them of, um, overly intimate bodily flavors. Stir-fried swiftly at the highest possible heat, to keep them from overcooking, the small pieces of meat were rich and tender-firm, balanced by an array of chopped Chinese celery, tree-ear slices, and flower-cut carrot slices. If you have leftovers, eat them at room temperature — nuking at any power destroys the precious texture of the kidneys.

The masterpiece of the dinner, April's favorite dish at DeDe's, bears the misleading title of "boiled sliced fish in hot sauce" (#14), which sounds like some awful New England mess of cod drenched in Tabasco. It's nothing like that. Dunlop doesn't include a recipe for this exact dish but offers a similar one with beef that's adaptable for fish, eels, organ meats, etc.: "Szechuanese people joke that outsiders, wary of the fiery local flavors, order this dish in restaurants, in the hope of eating something mild and soothing," she writes. "In fact it's sensationally hot." The fish isn't dumped into boiling water but "velveted" first in a marinade of rice wine and cornstarch, and whatever happens next (insta-boiled in water or simmered in sauce?), it emerges on the perfect border of softness and firmness, along with the accompanying large crisp-tender leaves of a cabbagelike Chinese green, aswirl in a thin bright-orange colloid that's simultaneously incendiary and irresistible. It's one of those complex, hot combinations that doesn't obscure but highlights the underlying, supporting flavors (garlic, ginger, wine, etc.). Every bite tastes a little different from the last. When retasting the leftovers at home, I found myself vocally reenacting Meg Ryan's famous "deli scene" — but this time the moans were actually about the food.

Inland Szechuan's fish are purely freshwater species from the Yangtze and other mountain rivers. I don't know or care what species DeDe's used, the dish was great. If you prefer, you can get the same preparation with pork chitlins, with pork kidneys and beef, or with chicken and pork.

When we ordered another of April's favorites, spicy hot pot with pork blood, tendon, etc. (#13), our friendly middle-aged waitress finally gave me a doubtful look — this was obviously carrying things to the very edge. I murmured, "You've heard of the Filipino dish dinaguan, pork blood stew? I eat that, too." Meanwhile, April was probably reassuring her in Mandarin. Between us, we communicated that there was no cause for alarm (except maybe the fire alarm). The hot pot looked like a soup — a blazing, oil-coated, red-orange soup. "Don't drink a lot of the broth," April said. "Just spoon the solids over your rice." The pork blood came in a very few little squares, solid, but soft and savory. The primary meat was white, soft, fluffy, lacy — was it tripe? Didn't taste funky! It was delicate, and the sauce was wicked hot. The mixture had a brilliant array of textures and flavors (including tender slices of pork liver) — but it was also one of the spiciest dishes I've ever tasted the whole world over, five chilies on a scale of three. (If I had to do it all over again, after devouring Dunlop's book, I'd probably order the Chungking hot pot [#2] — another three-chili dish — not because it's better, but because it's the emblematic regional dish, and I've never eaten it.)

One of the favorites of Chowhound bloggers, and rightly so, is Ma Po Tofu (#93), bean curd cubes in another spicy sauce. The favored style of bean curd in Szechuan is marked on packages (even here) as "silken," meaning, extra-soft, in contrast to the firm tofu used for deep-fried and stuffed tofu dishes in southern China and Japan. "The tofu tastes almost buttery," said Sam. It did, too. With a texture of velvet and cream under the taste of hot chilies, the mixture attains a fine balance. This dish typically includes ground pork, which I didn't taste here and didn't miss much, although I'd have valued it as another texture.

Yes, a lot of spice. Thing about hot pepper is, once you plunge into it enough that your mouth accepts it as a base-state flavor, then your palate has all the room in the world to discover the refinement and delicacy than can coexist with the capsicum in dishes that are done right. As I discovered in a year of fire-eating, cowriting my first cookbook (Totally Hot, Doubleday, out of print), it becomes almost a new comfort zone. It's like a much nicer version of an all-day motorcycle trip in a rainstorm. Once your leathers, your sweater, your thermals, your socks, and your flesh become totally soaked, you just forget there was ever such a state as dry, and you accept your lot as a water creature in an eternally cold, wet world (ribbit). Hot peppers do the same for your mouth, but more alluringly — first a bit of pain, then a lot of pleasure. Physiologists studying their effects say they slightly raise your heart rate, pulse rate, adrenaline secretions, and endorphins (pleasure hormones). Like a motorcycle ride in perfect weather, or some high-thrills drug, capsaicin (the active chemical component that produces these reactions) is a little addictive. But unlike chemical uppers, the stuff's actually good for you — loads of vitamin A and C and even natural antibiotics in those peppers.

Among the less-spicy choices, DeDe's most popular dish with the bloggers (slightly outpolling a reputedly good, crispy version of sweet-and-sour pork) is lamb with cumin (#81). I asked April if this were a Szechuanese dish. She'd never heard of it. According to Dunlop, there are small Chinese Moslem (Uighur) communities in Szechuan, and they substitute lamb for pork — but she doesn't include any recipes for it. Not all that impressed with the cumin lamb (which Ba Ren also offers), but suspecting it might be a case of hot-pepper palatosis, I retried gently reheated leftover lamb at home before eating anything spicy. It still didn't impress me much — slightly tough meat strips, a hint of seasoning, a tangle of pea shoots, no big deal.

We also tried twice-cooked pork (#67), a Szechuan classic made of streaky fat-and-lean belly pork (uncooked bacon) and veggies. Nice, and with only a "one chili" rating, actually soothing. Not quite as riveting as the version I tried at a Hong Kong Szechuan restaurant but, unlike that rendition, grease-free.

A special that evening, evident on about half the surrounding tables, was tea-smoked duck, another Szechuanese invention. It was pleasant (good skin, a bit dry in the flesh), but there are more interesting-sounding poultry dishes on the menu — chicken with dried orange peel, and particularly, a duck hot pot with yam cake (#89), another famous regional specialty.

Is DeDe's as good as my e-penpal said? Whew, every bit! Over 100 items on the menu, and I really want to try another 30 or 40 of them — maybe not the Chinese-American standards, but certainly some of the universal pan-regional dishes like dumplings and wonton soup — what's a Szechuanese wonton like? And will the "special dumpling" be closer to a Peking pot sticker or to a Tibetan momo? Of all the lower-priced places I've been eating at lately, DeDe's certainly gives the most thrills for the money — it's actually the most rewarding meal I've had in months. The purring sense of well-being even carried over to the next morning, and as I worked my way through the leftovers, the warm glow rekindled after every "doggie's dinner." Those chili-endorphins in the good food of Szechuan — they can turn you into a human Olympic torch.

DeDe's Tea Juice City

  • 4 stars
  • (Very Good to Excellent)
  • 4647 Convoy Street (between Dagget Street and Opportunity Road), Kearny Mesa, 858-279-5999; 278-6358
  • HOURS: Monday, Wednesday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m., 4:30-10:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.
  • PRICES: Cold appetizers, three for $6; noodles and rice plates, $5.50-$8; entrées, $8-$13; hot pot buffet, $25 per person.
  • CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Authentic Szechuan cuisine, often spicy. Tea, soft drinks, Asian beers.
  • PICK HITS: Pig-ear appetizer; boiled sliced fish in hot sauce (#14); mapo tofu (#93); hot and sour soup (#46); stir-fried pork kidney with vegetables (#16).
  • NEED TO KNOW: Simple decor, a bit noisy, family friendly (but no kiddie menu). Possible for vegetarians, but animal-based cooking stocks used in many dishes (ask!). Reservations accepted; English spoken okay. Many fiery dishes (accurately identified by one to three chili symbols on menu); plenty of milder choices. Food arrives quickly; consider ordering a few dishes at a time to space it out. Parking lot crowded but fast-moving: Seek and ye shall find.

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