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.
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