Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hot Hot Heat (Ba Ren)

I have been defeated by Ba Ren. There, I said it.

All I can say to Kirk, Kady and the rest of their Chowhound fans is y'all must have some asbestos coated tastebuds.

This food was SO spicy...

"How spicy was it?"

It was SO spicy, that after TWO bites, my nose started to run...

It was SO spicy, that when we opened the containers, I could SMELL the red pepper dust...

It was SO spicy, that I soaked two napkins with TEARS.

I should clarify by saying that I am not a wimp. I love spicy food. In Thai restaurants, I order the dishes on the menu with four peppers next to them, and then add chiles. I order curries hot, I sprinkle red pepper flakes on Italian food, and I consider cayenne pepper my "secret ingredient" when cooking. My favorite hot sauce is Marie Sharps - made with habanero chiles.

But this was just too much.

I wasn't the only one affected - my husband almost choked on the first bite (that pepper dust'll getcha!) and Brandon - who in his own words "like-a da spice" - was talking about ordering his next meal from the "American Favorites" section of the menu.

I don't know if my husband did something to piss them off when he ordered, or if he simply lied to us when he claimed he didn't order the food extra spicy, but oh man. It was really something else. Halfway through the meal we started talking about where we were going for ice cream .

We ordered most of the dishes discussed on Kirk's blog in this post and a few of the cold appetizers. We ordered our food for takeout, and took it to our friends' house nearby. The dishes we sampled were the Dry Fried Beef, Hot Pepper Prawns, Cold Szechuan Noodles and Rice Crust with Sliced Chicken. The Dry Fried Beef and Hot Pepper Prawns almost had more peppers than meat. Literally, they were piled high with dried peppers, and you could see the liberal dusting of ground pepper on top of that. (They definitely had more peppers than the dishes pictured on Kirk's blog.) The photo below shows the peppers left in the dish after we had eaten most of the shrimp. All of the red bits are dried peppers - you can see one shrimp at the bottom. Sorry so blurry, but I was using an unfamiliar camera - unfortunately I forgot mine. I also didn't think to take a picture of the meal until I realized history was being made with the second spiciest meal I had ever experienced. (The first was when my friend accidentally ordered takeout from Taste of Thai "extra spicy." That meal was truly inedible.) Kirk's photo also seems to show a glaze on the prawns - and based on his description I had thought they would be a bit sweet. I love sweet and spicy combinations, but this was hot hot hot all the way. The dry fried beef (pictured at top) was much the same. I liked the cold Szechuan noodles quite a bit though, and the crispy rice crust was unique - it had a smoky flavor that I didn't quite expect. The crispy rice cake was an interesting contrast with the brothy chicken mixture. The buffet of cold appetizers in front looked interesting, and the ones we tried were quite good (seaweed, beef tendon and bamboo shoots).

The restaurant was very crowded, and the menu is extensive with a number of dishes that I have never heard of. I saw some that looked interesting, including several different preparations for spare ribs and short ribs. I would also like to try the Twice Cooked Fish - which seems to be popular with Chowhounders. I was concerned it might not travel well for takeout.

English is definitely a second language here. I tried to order by phone, but I had to go in because they weren't able to understand what I was asking for by name. They really prefer that you order by number. Incidentally they have recently changed their menu - so the numbers on Kirk's blog are out of date. We figured that out when the guy told me I had just ordered something with eel instead of the hot pepper prawns.

All in all I would definitely say try it. Not everything will set your mouth on fire, and they will modify the spice level upon request. I am also curious to see how they handle the "American Favorites."

I bet they make a mean Orange Chicken.

Ba Ren
4957 Diane Ave.
off of Clairemont Mesa, West of 805.

Recommended dishes: Cold Szechuan Noodles, Rice Crust with Sliced Chicken.


  1. Ooooh! "Twice Cooked Fish" - that sounds like a dish that I get here in Austin except they call it "Fluffy Fish" - which is the whole reason I ordered it. It's crazy - they take fish fillets and fry them (straight - no batter). Then when they are crisp and cooked they take them out and chop them up - TINY- into this little mass of fishy bits. THEN they throw THAT into the oil and fry it until it comes out looking kind of like a pillow or like a really crispy funnel cake. Then you break pieces off of this fluffy fried stuff and eat it with a really super spicy apple, carrot, vinegar side thing that cuts through the fat of the fluffy fish. It's quite an experience and it's really good. Though I'm not sure I could tell that it was actually fish and not tempura crispies or something...

  2. Captain Jack8/18/06, 11:33 AM

    Hi Alice Q.
    I feel your pain. My friend and I had been eating at Ba Ren for about ten minutes when we looked at each other and started laughing. I said this s**t is so f**ing hot. My buddy had tears rolling down his cheeks and just rasped out "Oh Man!" I am having lunch with Kirk next week at Izakaya Sakura and I am already getting nervous. We are having Shiokara (fermented squid guts). Wanna join us?

  3. Great report!

    I think I'll have to wait until a freezing winter day to try this place - I really want to go since Kirk speaks so highly of it.

  4. Oh Alice. I guess it's a good thing we didn't meet at Ba Ren for dinner. We should try another Kearny Mesa restaurant, though. I must say to anyone else reading this comment that while Ba Ren is numbingly hot--it's fantastic and I didn't tear up at all. Just got a little "high." :) I personally didn't like the rice crust dishes but loved the dried beef and LOVED the cold szechuan noodles. To each his(/her) own, I suppose. Glad you gave it a try, though. You get major points for that.

  5. Hi AliceQ - Which post did you get the dish numbers from, the dish numbers from my first Ba Ren post are out of date. I think the post #201 is pretty much up to date, unless they changed the menu again in the last 2 weeks. I'm glad you tried Ba Ren, it's not for everyone, but at least you know, that if you eat Sichuan in the SGV, this is what the food will taste like. BTW, Ba Ren makes ChungKing style Sichuan which is thought to be more spicy than ChengDu style Sichuan. I've been to 2 ChengDu Style Sichuan restaurants and find that to be true.

  6. Kady and Kirk - I am not giving up that easily! I want to try it again and order a couple of the things that I saw on the menu that looked interesting, as well as the twice cooked fish. I liked the cold noodles too.

    Jack - I am afraid you and Kirk are on your own with the fermented squid guts - but I do love sushi. Angie from CrazySalad and I were talking about getting together, maybe we could make it a foursome? When are you going?

    Scott - I like the idea of the freezing winter day. If you opened one of these at a ski resort I think it would be a hit!

  7. I tried Ba Ren a few months ago after reading Kirk's blog and the chili was too much for us! But, on the advice of a Chowhound post we went back last night and had a GREAT meal. The chicken and chilis was HOT but the other dishes were tolerable and all in all the meal was wonderful. We had the sauteed green beans, shredded pork, and twice cooked fish. I'll go back!

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