*** The folks that used to work at Ba Ren are no longer here.
The first real inkling of something happening at the defunct BBQ Chicken site was announced in Eater San Diego. I did a quick post once the sign went up. FOY Candice even told me that she went to investigate and recognized one of the folks there, though she really couldn't remember where. I was pretty much burned out on Sichuan in San Diego once Ba Ren closed, and "Shifu" Chen, yes, he was a certified Master Chef from Chongqing (the original head chef of ChungKing Restaurant in Monterey Park), moved away. All of the places seemed to be serving stuff from the same playbook........with either Spicy City or Dede's being the source. After having a couple of mediocre meals at Szechuan Chef, followed by a dreary meal at Spicy House with their "new chef", I'd had enough. Still, I thought I'd stop by Fu An Garden and take a look at the menu, when the most surprising thing happened.....
As I walked to front of the restaurant from my parked car, I almost jumped out of my pants when someone started pounding on the window. I looked closely....and my goodness, it was the assistant chef from Ba Ren! Upon entering he grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. It was really nice seeing him. I made a promise to return with the Missus the next night, which we did. I returned with friends and solo a couple of times more.
The design is a million miles from Ba Ren...the restaurant is pretty small, but three's a large banquet style area behind some door in the front. The place is rather stylish in a Chinese restaurant sort of way. The place is owned by the family of the former prep cook at Ba Ren.
The menu is the modern, typical many photos scattered about and is sometimes confusing. There are at least a 169 dishes on the menu.
What follows is a listing of what I've had at Fu An Garden over the last couple of weeks, from the good, to the ones that I didn't enjoy as much. I will say, I've enjoyed the food at Fu An Garden much more than any other Sichuan restaurant in San Diego.
Back in fall of 2009, Ba Ren had a dish on the seasonal menu that we just loved. We didn't see it on the regular menu, but I thought the chef might just be able to make it for us. So I had my good friend "YZ" write it down before I went to visit with a group of friends:
We were delighted when our Server, the very friendly "Grace" asked the chef, who agreed to make it for us.
It was called Steamed Fish Filet with Green Onions and Chopped Chilies at Ba Ren. This looked like a carbon copy and was delicious! Though I will say, like many of the dishes, this one is not as spicy as the versions at Ba Ren, even when we order it "La" . Other then that, it's pretty close, the fish is tender, moist, and almost melts in your mouth, the sauce is a complex combination of flavors, there is bean thread on the bottom which adds to the enjoyment. I'm thinking of bringing some ghost peppers so we can get the heat up to snuff, but this is one of my favorites. My friends ended up taking photos of the Chinese name of the dish and have kept coming back to order it. Much like what happened at Ba Ren, I have a feeling this one will end up on the menu.
The Fried Intestines with Dried Red Pepper ($10.99) is also a winner.
Love the texture of these....crisp, giving way to a nice offal chewiness. Like many of the dishes, it could stand to have a bit more Sichuan Peppercorn, but this is one of my "go to" dishes here.
I believe that Chef Hu used to prep a lot of the Liang Cai - the cold dishes and these are a strong spot on the menu.
My favorite here without a doubt is the stomach/intestines which has a nice salty crunch to them. The pig ear is prepared well too.
My favorite at Ba Ren, the Fu Qi Fei Pian is cut correctly, but lacks the zip that I love. It's not bad, but not great.
My good friend "YummyYummy" loves the chicken feet.....
If there were any dishes at Ba Ren that I considered "comfort food" it would be the next three dishes. Each of which were close......
I loved the Sichuan Liang Mian at Ba Ren, it was comfort food to me, when the temperature rose I'd be craving it. So I just had to try it, called simply "Cold Noodle" ($6.99) on the menu.
At first I was thrown off as it looked nothing like what I expected. But as I mixed the noodles all those familiar scents rose in the air. And indeed, the flavor was there, the sesame paste, the vinegar, the mild spice, all the savory flavors melded together. This was almost spot on in terms of flavor....except that the noodles were really bad; hard, brittle, with an almost powdery texture to them. This was so close......
The portion size for the Chopped Cold Chicken with Chili Pepper Sauce ($12.99), Ko Shui Ji - mouthwatering (alright, let's call it the way it is..."Saliva") chicken was quite large.
The flavor was there, but very muted, like there wasn't enough of anything...it needed a whole lot more spice, more everything. This needs a bit of tuning, which I'm hoping will occur......
As did the Won Ton with Chili Sauce ($6.99) - Long Chao Shou.
This was a bit on the water-logged side and the won tons really didn't have the "kou gan", the mouth feel I was looking for.
The Lamb in Dry Pot ($12.99) was passable.
I prefer a thicker cut for dry cooked dishes, this was bit too close to shabu-shabu cut meat. The flavor was a bit too much soy sauce and not enough Sichuan peppercorn and spices.
The Fish Filet with Pickled Pepper (Pa Jiao - $11.99) was similar in lack of a complex spicy flavor.
Of course I had to order the Shui Zhu Yu, the classic "Water Boiled Fish" ($12.99).
The fish was prepared spot on, melt in your mouth tender. The flavor fell short in the "ma" category as it wasn't very numbing, and could have used more spice as well. The sauce was kind of flat and was very salty, but lacked the savory bean paste flavor. This is a favorite; I'm hoping it was only a mild "hiccup".
All of these dishes were edible, some more than the others. The dish I liked the least was a total "Convoy Sichuan" dish; something that everyplace makes....and not very well at that. In this case, they call it Twice Cooked Fish. A part of me was wishing for this, one of our favorites at Ba Ren:
Unfortunately, it was basically the same dish you can get at any of the "Sichuan" restaurants on Convoy - the fried then tossed with peppers dish that lacks real complex flavors.
It really wasn't very spicy and the batter was very powdery and crumbly with an odd sweet flavor that the Missus likened to cake mix.
So what's my verdict? Well first off, the service here is very nice. If you recall how surly things got once Wendy left Ba Ren....this is a very nice group of folks. The potential is there; the chef cooked for 9 years under a Master Chef and while it maybe just like the other places on the street with regards to a well worn playbook, we aren't talking about ChongQing Taxi Driver cooking here...this chef has a pedigree. I'm hoping this is a jump off point for Chef Hu and the sky's the limit.
Fu An Garden
4768 Convoy St
San Diego, CA 92111