Ba Ren has gotten a lot of very positive press on this board recently, so 20 San Diego Chowhounds decided it was time to do some field testing. First of all, HUGE kudos to KirkK for putting the menu together and acting as our laision with the staff/owners/chefs at Ba Ren. There was not one klunker in Kirk's menu :-). And even more remarkably, everyone like everything.
I think I can safely say that the collective reaction was one big - WOW. Ba Ren is a winner and a keeper. It's not an especially large restaurant, kind of an "L" shaped dining room that seats around 50 or 60. Decor is an eclectic mix of the typical Asian knick-knacks but definitely not overdone or overbearing. The food is the star here not what's on the walls.
Waiting for us on each table as we arrived were 4 cold appetizers - Husband & Wife, Razor Clam in Spicy Sauce (menu #414), a Dried Beef dish that is not on the English menu, and Cold Chicken with Spicy Sauce (menu #134). All 4 were a delight, very light, very well done and spicy hot but not enough to totally numb the taste buds. This rendition of Husband & Wife (#101 & 104 on the menu) were plesantly chewy and infused with a nice level of spice. The razor clams were very tender with a clean refreshing taste and held their own against the spicy sauce. You knew you were eating clam, the flavor still shown through despite the chile. But the real hit was the dried beef that had been sauted with chiles, green onions (at least I *think* they were green onions) and a bean sprout of some type. The huge mound on our table was rapidly depleted and most everyone needed seconds on this dish. It had an addicting quality to it. The cold chicken was also very good but you had to watch out for bones.
As can happen in a Chinese restaurant once you start eating the dishes come out one right after the other, and in our case, each one seemed to be better than the last. Here is what else we were served (in no particular order):
Boiled Sliced Beef in Hot Sauce (menu #142) - another winner. Thin slices of beef that were very tender in a sauce that was tangy and somewhat sour or puckery. My table was kind of split on this dish, half of us REALLY like it and the other have just merely liked it.
Stir-fried Frog's Legs (menu #170) - consensus was that this was a great dish, just watch out for the small bones. So if frogs legs are your thing, this is the place for you. (By the way, they *don't* taste like chicken)
Crispy Rice Crust w/Three Delicacies (menu #180) - Squares of rice crust are brought to the table and the sauce poured over them so that there is a noticable sizzle. Rice crust dishes are not especially spicy so this was a nice respite from all the heat. A very soothing, comforting dish, it went down very, very easily and was one of the favorites of the evening.
Fish Fillet Casserole (menu #203) - another very soothing dish, probably good for whatever might ail you. This dish arrived in a squat ceramic pot with a generous amount of assorted chinese vegetables, cellophane (?) noodles and small pieces of a mild white fish. A rather mellow dish that proved to be a good foil to the spice and heat of the other dishes
Braised Fish-Flavored Eggplant Casserole (menu #215) - One of the big winners of the meal. I'm not exactly sure why they call it fish-flavored because it tasted anything by fishy. The eggplant had been cut into wide batons, was remarkably grease free for eggplant, but it was the sauce that was the revelation. It had a slightly sweet, slightly sour, very tangy and piquant bite to it without being overly sweet, overly sour or too spicy. The flavor balance in this dish was truly outstanding. I'm not big on eggplant - okay, I really dislike eggplant - but I would go back just to eat this one dish.
Braised Whole Fish with Hot Bean Sauce (menu #408) - I have to say that both tables picked the bone clean and even very little of the head was left. An excellent deep fried and braised carp that was soft, buttery and altogether delicious.
Hot Pepper Prawns (menu #410) - the menu isn't kidding when it says "hot pepper". The prawns had been battered and deep fried and were absolutely swimming in a sea of chopped and wokked chile japonese. From the spice/heat stand point this was probably the hottest dish of the night, yet even with all the chiles - and there were an amazing amount - that was not the only thing you tasted. The flavor of the prawns and the batter was still detectable along with the tastebud searing heat.
Ma Po Tofu (menu #501) - One of the other superstar dishes of the evening, also one of the hotter ones. Even if you don't like tofu you'll like this dish. Bite size cubes of firm tofu had been combined with a spicy red sauce for delectable goodness. Iron Chef Chin Kinichi would have been proud of this version :-)
Twice Cooked Fish (not on the English Menu) - this was probably the consensus favorite of the meal. The name doesn't do it justice. Pieces of white fish filet had been battered and deep fried and then combined with a spicy sauce and some assorted vegetables, leeks, red pepper, black bean. The leeks were phenomenally good with the sauce and totally grit free. All the components of this dish really work well together making a wholly satisfying dish, maybe they use umami, I don't know. I do know that this was an uncommonly good dish. It was spicy but not overpowering.
Ba Ren bills itself as "Sichuan Cuisine with a Flair", and flair they do have. Though heat and spice are the featured players here, the other flavors in each dish were clear and discernible. Chile was not overused to the point where you could taste nothing else. You could really taste the fish in each fish dish, you could taste the beef in the beef dishes, the chiles were just the counterpoint used to enhance flavors that were already there. On the other hand though, there will be about 20 people in San Diego tonight with no sinus problems :-)).
A note on the 2 menu items we had that were not on the English menu. On each table is a plastic table tent with the Chinese specials. The dried beef dish is the next to the last special ($12.99) and the twice cooked fish is the last one on the list ($8.99 if memory serves). If you want to try ordering either of these 2 dishes you'll have to point at the line item you want. The staff speaks some English, but let's just say it's not their primary language. And speaking of staff, they are very friendly and accommodating here, so even if your Mandarin is a little rusty and their English a little shakey, you'll still feel welcome.
Also, a big thanks to Bob Foster who provided the wine for the evening. And A big thank you to Ba Ren for waiving their corkage fee. Bob brought a Chenin Blanc and a Gerwitz (sorry guys, I couldn't spell it even if German was my first language) that paired well with the meal. The Gerwitz was a little better match because it was a little sweeter and coupled better with the spicy food.
Ba Ren is truly a worthy addition to the Asian eateries on Kearny Mesa. It is located at 4957 Diane Ave. San Diego, CA 92117. (858) 279-2520. It is open daily from 11 AM - 9:30 PM. If you go with a small group of say 4-6 people and pay cash, don't be surprised if you receive a discount (10%?) for paying cash.
805 to Clairmont Mesa Blvd, exit West toward the ocean. Diane Ave is the 3rd or 4th stoplight (there is a JITB on the corner). Turn right and it's about 1/2 block down on your right, big sign, very easy to find. Ample parking in back and on the street.
So, all in all, another wonderful Chowhound get together. See ya all at the next one..........