By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Our faces grew long when arriving at the doors of Szechuan Mandarin on Mission Gorge Road, an old-school Chinese restaurant that has long quelled our hankerings for zesty pork dumplings and chili-laced stir-fries. It was closed for remodeling and still is. So with a maniacal desire to find something similar, we drove north on the street and discovered a more powerful mouth burn at Mr. Spicy in the Village Square plaza.
Located toward the back of the complex, we were immediately struck by the high-resolution photographs of menu items canvassing its front windows — not the faded, unappetizing kind common to other casual Chinese eateries. These hinted at bright, quality food.
Inside, we were greeted by a fast-smiling waitress speaking in limited English. From what we gathered, she co-owns the small, newish restaurant with her husband, who would occasionally shout out to customers with a glint in his eyes while cooking from the semi-open kitchen, “Spicy enough?”
In most cases the answer was “yes,” given that few dishes escape the spirited combination of red chili peppers and fresh jalapenos.
The pork dumplings we so craved were the first dish we ordered. Unlike their spicy, oiled counterparts at Szechuan Mandarin, these were naked, wetter and tamer, but considerably chubbier from their ginger-kissed pork fillings. Better yet, they came 12 to an order.
The egg drop soup was expectedly mild, although rosy in color and less plain-tasting than others, thanks to juicy bits of tomatoes mingling with carrots, peas and the wispy eggs. We also ordered hot and sour soup, which for once didn’t taste like 80 percent vinegar. The sour component stemmed mainly from generous measures of tender cabbage bobbing within the peppery broth.
Chinese dry pots are the soup-less incarnations of classic hot pots. They’re constructed here with chicken, fish, lamb, beef or tofu, in addition to a bounty of colorful vegetables that includes bamboo shoots, snap peas, celery and double doses of chili peppers.
We chose the chicken dry pot, served in a metal urn and kept warm by Sterno. The presentation and flavors were gorgeous, and the amount of tender chicken meat was surprisingly abundant for a dish costing only $8.99. Two people can easily share it and possibly end up with leftovers.
Perhaps it was overkill, but I had to try the “kong” pao chicken, which also yielded scads of meat and didn’t fall short on peanuts or chili peppers. As with all of the entrees, you must inspect every forkful of food before shoveling it into your mouth. Otherwise you risk incinerating your uvula with sneaky bits of chili peppers and their unforgiving seeds that surfaced continuously in our main courses.
In a subsequent visit, I started with a stack of six extra-crispy spring rolls. The waitress-owner admitted reluctantly they are not made in-house, but stressed “they are very good with all vegetables inside.” She was right.
I also tried a weakly flavored onion cake that sprang to life with a few drops of chili oil. Its texture was comforting, like a cross between phyllo pastry and a grilled flour tortilla. For saucy dishes such as Szechwan shrimp, hot and sour cabbage or the Kung pao choices, it acts as a more interesting mop than white rice.
A few dishes across the menu are preceded with the words “local flavor,” such as the pork dish I ordered afterwards. It basically means that those particular proteins are served in chili sauce and accented heavily with fresh cilantro. Spicy and delicious it was, although I wasn’t nuts about the pork’s long, wormy cuts. It was as though the meat had been extruded from a sausage maker.
There are several dishes that will lure me back when the gods of capsaicin call again. Among the hottest that I’ll dare try are green-chili shrimp in hot sauce, dry pot flounder, cumin lamb, and sliced beef in Szechwan sauce.
The menu caters kindly to timid palates with almond chicken, walnut shrimp and chow mein. But with a name like Mr. Spicy, why bother coming if your taste buds aren’t ready for a thrill?
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.