Ba Shu Ren Jia 4771 Steeles Ave. E., Toronto, 416-335-0788 $35 for dinner for two with beer, tax and tip; no credit cards accepted
We've come a long way, baby.
Once upon a time, Chinese food meant chow mein on a good day and sugary, goopy red sauce on deep-fried chicken balls otherwise. The chow mein stage was catch-all Cantonese; it was followed by a brief flirtation with Szechuan that saw our acquaintance with hot and sour soup and flash-fried green beans with pork and chilies, but not too many chilies, not very hot soup and little else from China's southwestern province. Clearly the Chinese chefs purveying this so-called Szechuan cuisine on Spadina were either not from Sichuan province and hence ignorant of its cuisine or they were scared to dish out the real deal, fearing that Canadians couldn't take the heat. Good guess if you picked the latter.
At Ba Shu Ren Jia in northeast Toronto, the scent when they bring out the chicken hot pot (hot pots being a Szechuan specialty) is enough to make my eyes water. Hot pot is a cross between soup and stew, and the liquid in this pot is the fiery red colour that can only come from one thing: chilies by the hundred. I have eaten this mouth-burner so you don't have to.
How hot is it? Scary-to-swallow hot. Same deal with ma to fu, which is tofu with way too much chili for the untutored palate.
The lamb in pot, though, is the reason to schlep to Steeles and Midland. Thin sliced (and hence very tender) lamb makes a divine match for very vinegary pickled Chinese broccoli, which lends sharpness to the chili-spiked broth. Shards of fresh ginger add yet another flavour note to the scintillating combo.
While we're on the subject of foods I ate so you won't have to, skip the pork cooked sweet pie, which is just too weird. Sweetened mashed pork is wrapped in a tough, thin pancake, which is surely an acquired taste; you have to grow up with it.
You may also wish to skip the house specialty: homemade fish. We get why this is a house specialty; its sauce - perfectly balanced sweet and hot, with garlic and ginger - is fabulous. But this paragon of flavour is ladled over farmed tilapia, with its trademark unpleasant earthy, muddy taste.
One might think that the excess of chilies, the farmed tilapia and the appalling service make Ba Shu Ren Jia a gastronomic no-go zone. The service, for instance, is barely there. One evening, we wait 25 minutes for human contact; another evening, we're filling our own takeout containers with the leftovers.
And the room is no great shakes either: It's big and plain with paper "tablecloths" and jaundiced yellow walls. Only those who view dining as adventure will want to go there.
But your reward will be sautéed pea greens, smaller and more delicate than those downtown, with micro-leaves, barely wilted.
And pork with spicy sauce consisting of tender pork shreds scented with garlic and green onion in a pool of just enough chili oil to be exciting, with cabbage shreds and bamboo shoots for bite. This is a sauce that begs to be drunk.
Gung pao (a.k.a. kung pao) chicken marries toasted peanuts with both red and green peppers in fragrant sauce made sweet from much onion, with enough fragrant blackened chilies to make life interesting but not painful.
There is the brilliant and the unusual: Tea shrimp is a great pile of fabulous deep-fried oolong tea leaves (a crisp, fragrant wallop to the taste buds) contrasted with the soft, sweet savour of flash-fried sweet shrimps in the shell. These babies are so good you'll be sucking their tails.
Even the standard Szechuan green beans, flash-fried in light egg wash with sweet pork bits, are wonderful.
So what if you're begging the server for bowls and serving spoons? This is food that makes the taste buds salute, that is so much more than fuel.