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We’ve Been Ma-La’d: Chowdown #1 of 2004 at Spices! II

  • m

Monday night, 20 chowhounds (including four year-old chowprincess, Maia) kicked-off another great year of chowing by feasting on nearly 40% of the Sichuan specialties offered at Spices! II. The garish, multi-colored décor, strobe lights, and thumping Taiwanese rock videos pumped up our party mood.

Marcella, the writing half of the Marcelory team, celebrated her birthday with us with Gregory and Maia on hand. Another new face, Leon, enthused, “where else would I have the chance to try so many dishes at once?” Victoria confessed that she had already eaten here nine times…maybe she’ll tell us about her other favorite dishes. Jen Maiser had photo duty and will soon share some pictures. Karen “RWCFoodie” summarized the meal at evening’s end with a satisfied sigh saying, “We’ve been ma-la’d!”

The list of dishes we ordered, along with the *spice levels indicated on the menu, follows, and the dinerss will comment on their favorites. Prices were easy on the pocketbook with a cost of $20 per person, inclusive, and plenty leftover to take home.


37. **Spices! Numbing Spicy Pork Kidney, $3.95
38. **Hot & Spicy Beef Combination, $3.95
39. **Spicy Chinese Bacon with Garlic, $3.95
40. **Numbing Spicy Beef Tendon, $3.95
43. * Spicy Pig Ear with Red Oil, $3.95
45. **Numbing Spicy Pork Intestine, $3.95
50. Scallion Salad Noodle, $2.95
51. **Chicken with Red Oil (mouth-watering), $5.95
54. Marinated Cucumber, $2.95
59. Crispy Salty Duck, $4.95
61. Scallion Pancake, $2.95 (two orders)
62. * Won Ton in Red Oil, $4.25

Special Soups:

122. Fish Fillet w/Pickle Cabbage Soup, $6.95 for large (one and a half orders)

Family Meals: 3 items for $17.95

82. * Shredded Pork with Pickled Chili
89. * Stir-fried Potato Strips
90. * Dry Braised String Beans

Noodle Plates:

95. * Tan-tan Noodle, $5.25

House Specialties:

1. **Cumin Lamb, $8.95
2. **Numbing Spicy Conch (cold), $8.95
4. * Smoked Beef Shank (cold), $4.95

Szechuan Trenz:

16. * Fire-Burst! Pork Stomach, $6.95
25. * Silky Tofu with Seafood, $8.95
26. ***Fish Fillet Bowl with Flaming Red Oil (water-cooked), $7.95

Plus steamed rice and for some cold, milky and sweet soothing, we sampled various flavors of blended fruit smoothies (Sagittarius, Libra, Pisces, Cancer, etc.).

Spices! II
291 – 6th Ave. & Clement
San Francisco

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  1. Since we asked to post about the dish we like the best I will be the first to post. The entire meal was very good and it was hard to pick the dish I like best, but after reviewing the list again this morning I was able to pick a dish.
    Numbing Spicy Pork Kidney, was cooked just right. Kindey is something that can not be overcooked and this was not. Normally Mrs. Yimster always tell the waiter to tell the cook that it should be cooked thur. But I like a little underdone (not raw) so the flesh has a crisp texture. We were lucky that one person at our table did not eat the kindey so there was more for the rest of us. One of these I will have to make this dish at home expect it is a lot of work to clean the kidneys properly.
    This was a three napkin meal, after ten dishes the pepper had my nose running.
    Where else can you meet so many nice people at meal expect for Chowhound. It was a great way to start the year.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Yimster
      Melanie Wong

      After reading your post, my dining companion from Dragon 2000 asked me which version I liked better. It's kind of a toss-up. The saucing at Spices! was definitely better, less sweet and with ample Sichuan peppercorns. Yet, although the texture was exemplary, it can't beat the handling at Dragon 2000. Wish I could have Spices' sauce with D2K's kidney - that would be perfect.

      Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        This verison was very good. But China Village is also very good, but not the same. But the one I have found was to the best to me was Shanghai Gourmet in Walnut Creek. The one we had there were a lot thicker and just as tender and cook to the doneness I like.
        With that said kidney's will depend on what the kitchen staff gets (the thickness will depend on the size of the kidney).
        I never have kidney at home because they are a pain to clean. If do not clean them properly they will have a bad taste.
        Thanks for arranging this meal.

        1. re: Yimster

          Had the ma la kidney flower last night at China Village - not good, muddy tasting and too firm, although the seasoning was great. The #1 chef was not in the kitchen, and I think it showed the most in this dish.

    2. v
      Victoria Libin

      My favorite dishes were the fireburst pork stomach, the chicken with red oil, the spicy pig ear in red oil, and the water cooked fish. All the dishes were very good, but those stand out in my mind. The pork stomach had a great combination of textures with the chewy meat, gelatinous tree ear mushroom, crunchy pickled red peppers and a very flavorful spicy garlicky sauce. The chicken with red oil was succulent, very spicy and had a nice amount of fried scallions for contrast. I really enjoy the crunchy texture of the pig's ear and the sauce is very similar to the chicken but with cilantro instead of scallions. The water fish was firm like a fish cheek, very fresh and mild tasting with what I believe was mustard greens, and a chili oil sauce.

      I keep raving about the large fried intestine and the giant sea scallop with fried minced garlic. The hotpots are also very good, but the numbing hot one, is really a feat to eat without choking from the heat and peppercorns.

      1. What a great way to kick off the chow year! I enjoyed meeting new people, people I feel like I've met but haven't (Victoria), and seeing old friends.

        One highlight for me was, after he looked dubiously at the pork kidney but vowed to try everything, Alan's face lighting up and him proclaiming it "really good"! Which it was, and I'm not much for innards.

        Since we're supposed to choose a favorite to describe, I'll go with the Crispy Salty Duck. This is almost like confit, I said to Yimster and Limster (what a lucky girl, getting to sit between them!). The skin was crisp and rendered, almost like chicharrones, and the meat (leg quarters) was soft and melting with fat, but not greasy. Plus there wasn't a drop of chili oil in sight, which made it a welcome relief from the rest of the red-stained dishes!

        1. I really enjoyed last night's dinner. The spice was intense, but it was a brief hit and then we were on to the next thing. Victoria mentioned that when she has gone in the past, she ordered a fruity drink along with the meal. I would do that next time -- we didn't order the drinks till the end. Having the drink would help to cool down your palate for the next dish.

          There were a couple of standout things for me:

          Chicken in oil. This was one of the very spicy dishes, and I liked the peanuts added to it.

          Lamb with cumin. I think this was the spiciest thing I tried. The lamb was presented in dry strips covered with a spicy seasoning.

          Cucumbers with garlic. This was just a small dish we had at the beginning that I really enjoyed.

          I can't wait to return.

          The link for photos is below -- sorry I didn't do the link in the post. I have had bad luck with that in the past.

          Link: http://fogcity.blogs.com/photos/spice...

          2 Replies
          1. re: jen maiser

            Are those carvings edible ? Lots of work for $8.95

            The dishes etc looked great and presentation gets high marks for a bargain place like that or maybe it's special treatment ?

            1. re: Han Lukito

              It was not special treatment -- I saw the same presentation of the same dish on other tables. BTW, the carvings varied -- the ones on our two tables were completely different.

          2. “We’ve been ma-la’d!”

            Is that like being numbstruck?

            Without my fellow hounds, I undoubtedly would have been numbfounded by the menu!

            1 Reply
            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Hey, the menu came in both languages. You would have handled it like a champ. (Say, is that menu on-line anywhere?)

            2. So many choices on which to comment. Although I do love hot and spicy foods, I really appreciated the occasional non-spicy dish which helped to cool and cleanse the palate. The smoked beef shank was welcome towards the end of the meal, and the fish fillet soup was helpful early on. Neither was particularly complex (the soup in general tasting of the pickled cabbage and little else), but they helped with the ma la feeling.

              For the spicy dishes, I really liked the Fish Fillet Bowl with Flaming Red Oil. Although marked a 3 star hot dish, I felt it really didn't merit that designation. Lots of chopped garlic on top of the dish, plenty of green veggies under it, and a pleasant spice to tickle the tongue. The chicken in red oil was spicier to me, but that could have been all the oil I consumed with my rice!

              While there are some dishes I wouldn't order again, my only disappointment was the Cumin Lamb. I had hoped that this would have a nice, crisp outside like the Xinjiang lamb kabobs and similar lamb dishes served in other restaurants. Alas, the lamb was not at all caramelized.

              In any case, definitely worth a visit. Having a large group really helped. I still can't believe we got out of there for only $20 a head, with so many dishes to try, and no one leaving hungry.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Peter Yee

                And I would like to add my thanks to Melanie for getting this dinner arranged in short order. Everything went smoothly with the reservation and it was great getting to see Limster again!

              2. First, a greatful thanks to Melanie and all others involved for putting this excellent event together and ordering such an amazing and abundant amount of food. Also, my thanks to the Chowhounds who were so welcoming and encouraging, especially to Debbie, who takes a somewhat less "adventurous" approach to new food experiences. The "people" part of the experience was as wonderful as the food.

                As Ruth indicated, I was somewhat sceptical about trying the kidneys, and yet it ended up to be my favorite dish of the evening. I had never eaten kidneys previously, being more worried in my ignorance about the texture (mushy-lievry)than about the source of the cut. The meat was firm and very thinly sliced and in a hot oil sauce that had an excellent "zing".

                I also found the stir fried potato strips with jalapenos to be excellent, as well as the beef tendon and pork stomach. Debbie enjoyed everything that she tried, but expecially the shredded pork with pickled chile.

                Overall, I didn't find the heat level of the dishes to be at all excessive, and they left my tongue tingling just right.

                One more point. We found the ambiance of the restaurant to be "high energy" and the decor radiated "fun". We especially enjoyed the Taiwanese rock music video that was on screen and piped out on the speakers, with a musically excellent band, excited crowd and great visuals.

                Thanks again folks. We left full and satisfied with a great Chowhound experience, and are looking foward to returning very soon.

                1. Everything was so great, and I love going to chowdowns because we get to try so much of the menu.

                  My favorites:

                  numbing pork intestine: I love this stuff and my mother refuses to make it because it is hard to clean. It has a great texture.

                  cucumbers: they cut it into small pieces and the flavor goes all the way through. More flavorful than the version at China Village, I thought.

                  chinese bacon: very fatty but the sauce was delicious, and the fat helped soak up all the spice

                  won ton in red oil: this was the first time I had this so I have no basis for comparison, but I loved it

                  fish fillet bowl: this one put me over the edge in terms of spice, but it was so good I couldn't stop.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: felice

                    I was actually disappointed in the wontons with chile oil, after just having them for the first time at China Village last week. If you liked these, you'll love China Village's version!

                    I agree about the smaller pieces of cucumber soaking up more flavor, though. Makes sense, since smaller pieces have a higher proportion of surface area.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I think I actually prefer the Spices version of "wontons with chile oil"--Spices' oil also has a brothy component that makes it eminently sippable.

                  2. r
                    RWCFoodie (Karen)

                    Whoooeee - my ears are still ringing! I'm not sure if it was the Ma-La effects of Sichuan Pepper/Chili or the high-octane Taiwanese rock and roll... Whatever it was/is, I loved it! I guess I've never had so many dishes with so much chili and Sichuan Pepper at one time. The mouth-numbing, chili spiciness of all the dishes we tried was terrific; I just don't have enough adjectives to describe how yummy everything was and how much fun it is to hang with the Hounds! Thanks to Melanie for putting this together so quickly; I'm so glad that a second table was possible! It was wonderful to see Limster again, good to meet some new Hounds and visit with everyone. Now, to try to narrow things down to a "favorite"; that's difficult because I really liked everything. I could have easily eaten a plate full of the salty crispy duck and the marinated cucumbers. I really loved the Numbing Spicy Pork Intestine, the Shredded Pork with Pickled Peppers and the Numbing Spicy Pork Kidney and the Chicken with Red Oil. As others have mentioned, what's really great about going to a place like this with a large group is the opportunity to try many dishes. As we were leaving I passed a table with a couple who were working their way thru a crab that must have been #12 "Crab Snowed with Fried Garlic"; the gentleman was enjoying the dish immensely but the chili intensity must have been very high as he was bright red and had perspiration pouring off his forehead! I was full but that crab looked so good! Looking over the menu this afternoon, I see many more dishes I would love to try so I'm hoping to be able to get back. By the way, the Parking Gods were smiling on us; we found a spot right across the street which seemed like a very good omen - I rarely have that kind of luck in that neighborhood!

                    1. First a great thanks to Melanie for making possible what turned out to be a numbingly hot birthday!

                      I for one was amazed by the variations in spiciness last night. Melanie pointed out that we had spicy dishes that targeted various parts of the palate. The end result -- at least in my case -- was a "buzz" that rivaled several glasses of wine.

                      I too loved the crispy salty duck. I was sad that I only took one small piece of it. I don't usually have duck that is not covered in an overly sweet sauce, and this one was rich, fatty and salty. The shredded pork with pickled chili was delightful. The chilis were just the right sweet/sour and crisp-tender, not limp as I expected. They were the real stars of the dish.

                      Perhaps I'd built up my tolerance, but I thought that the cumin lamb (rated at spice level two) was the only thing a bit too spicy for me, while I regretted waiting so long to try the water-cooked fish (spice level three). The fish itself was great. The cabbage soup was one of my favorites and Maia's too.

                      Next time, I'm attacking one of those spicy whole crabs.


                      1. yes, it was quite a grand bouffe, but i found it a bit monochromatic in the hot red oil and sichuan pepper departments.

                        simple things like the soup, the dan dan noodles, and the pickled cucumber were perfect, i thought.
                        also, there was another conch dish, served in a conch shell with a carrot-carved buddah alongside for decoration, which i thought was delicious.

                        melanie was swooning over the simple potato dish (which i've had before and usually think of as undercooked). (are there other chinese cuisines that use potatoes?)

                        there are several dishes that i think of as classic sichuan (but what do i know) that i have to go back and try (hope they have them on the menu):
                        boiled peanuts
                        pickled cabbage
                        (and i once had a crispy dry cooked beef dish somewhere i've been fantasizing about ever since.)

                        another thing that should be mentioned is the pop decor and high db chinese pop/rock, so loud that
                        conversation is well nigh impossible. the customers (other than us) tended to be 20-somethings, rather than
                        older or families.

                        but only chowhounds could divide the smoothies into tasting sized portions so effortlessly.

                        1. Melanie,

                          We should fly you out for our sichuan chow-feasts out here in D.C., just so that you can compose a menu and keep us within reason. As the attached post demonstrates, my ordering at our very similar event was, depending on your perspective, unrestrained, or overenthusiastic, or lunatic. But fun and delicious all the same -- as it seems the S.F. version was, as well!

                          Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Marty L.
                            Melanie Wong

                            Happy 2004!

                            I got a note from Charlie T., whose post on the first location of Spices! I'd linked to for reference, that he has been hanging out in DC or he would have joined us Monday. He said he's been enjoying the Sichuan food in your parts and promised to post. He knows much more about this cuisine than I do - maybe you'll catch him before he leaves.

                          2. Many thanks to Melanie for organizing this very enjoyable dinner -- was a pleasure to meet many old friends and new faces (well, new to me, at least).

                            On the whole, I found the spicing on the milder side, when compared to say, China Village, not as heavy on the peppercorns, but still satisfying. Was particularly impressed with the range of well rendered textures from the variety of pig parts, from crunchy ears to softer crunchy gelantinous tendon, from the flat snap of the intestines to the sharper, smoother kidney slices.

                            Also enjoyed the water-cooked fish, soft and fire soaked.

                            Was disappointed with the silky tofu and seafood, which I had suggested. They employed silken tofu, not the much more delicate tofu flower, as the menu had described in Chinese. The piece of fish that I had with it was rather pasty and the sauce came across as slightly flat.

                            1. um... sorry so late, must of been the peppercorns? i was literally in a daze for the entire weekend, not spun by the spice but the dizziness of dish after dish after dish, round and round the lazy susan. i really couldn't keep up... after dish 20 or so, i was completely inundated with food. i don't think i've had such a sumptuous banquet since i was a kid! all for $20! get out! i couldn't believe it! will do it again any day.

                              as far as Spice II is concerned, it was definitely not as spicy as Spice I. i thought S II's cuisine was definitely more refined, subtle in its spiciness and complex in flavor... sure maybe that complexity is a several kinds of peppercorns toasted with several kinds of peppers but you know what i'm getting at. at S I, it was all about the shock value: digging through a mound of pepper carcasses to get to the fried fish. needless to say, i was very impressed with S Ii, even if i was hesitant to go at first having been food poisoned at S I about 6 months ago.

                              ok, comments: my favorites were the cold dishes. maybe i just like the chili oil, maybe it was the different textures of each kind of meat / organ that harmoniously segued each cold dish and kept me slurping in hot oil -- i was ladling a spoonful of oil onto each morsel of meat and drank it all. only criticism is that they could've varied the degree of spiciness for certain oils and also, i did not get the "ma" so much and the "la" wasn't, well, particularly "la" either. usually there is that citrusy nose when you smell the sichuan peppercorn in a dish -- i didn't catch much of that in any dish. i remember when i was eating happily at S I, the dandan noodles made my mouth completely numb -- i liked that.

                              everyone expressed their liking for smaller pieces of cukes. i actually like them bigger. but since there wasn't anything extremely spicy, the larger cukes weren't needed to put out the would-be fire so it was fine... and the red oil? did i mention i liked it?

                              i was disappointed in the scallion pancakes -- they tasted kind of like the instant kind at Ranch 99. as far as the red oil won tons, i thought they were quite big for sichuan red oil "hands". the traditional kind (tell me if i'm wrong) are small with a pinky nail's worth of pork and a whole lot of flap. i'm not a stickler for tradition but i like the fact that the increased surface area catches more of the red oil. the S Ii version tasted and looked like shanghai style won tons in red oil. they were good but not what i had in mind.

                              limster was right, the fish fillets were caked in corn starch but i liked the soup even if it was as peter said, just sour pickled cabbage. it definitely refreshed my palette between snacks and entrees. their tan-tan noodles were... ok. i like Sam Lok's much better. the noodles were definitely store bought and the sauce was kind of watery without too much flavor. i could make it better at home. did they have sichuan cold noodles? that would've been worth trying -- more red chili oil! the beef shank was very tasty with balanced flavor and the conch, a pleasant surprise: not chewy at all. i agree with limster about the silky tofu, it should be tofu flower but hey, i guess that's how it goes. now, the water-cooked fish fillets is suppose to be the hottest dish and i think it was, but it was still not a 3 fire alarm (as advertised). i could've gone a couple notches up. in china, this dish is swimming in 1/4 inch of red oil and upon smelling that red oil, one coughs! that's what i was expecting. oh, i can't remember anything too specifically except that i enjoyed every dish and was surprised at its consistency and restraint (unlike S I).

                              though the astrological "smoothies" were pretty gross -- tasting all the same and masked by that artificial fruit syrup flavor -- it did hit the spot after all the savory heat.

                              thanks melanie for the invite, peter for the ride home and everyone else for showing me that eating for $20 doesn't mean 3 dishes!