One of my favorite dishes in the Chinese repertoire is huo bao yao hua, or "fire-exploded kidney flowers". It's a Sichuan dish of pork kidneys in a slightly sweet sauce. Kidneys, which are the filtration systems of mammals, tend to have an off, "urine-y" taste. The Chinese, who waste nothing and have several millennia of advanced, near-obsessive culinary tradition on which to bank, have devised a way to make these organs not only edible but desirable.
When properly prepared, pork kidneys are cut into thin slices. Each slice is meticulously cross-hatched at an oblique angle. The slice is then laid down and cut into chicken foot-looking pieces, with only every third or fourth cut going all the way through. The kidneys are then sent cascading into a good quantity of impossibly hot oil in a wok; the temperature difference and the cutting causes the kidneys to explode outward, not unlike meat popcorn. They're then stir-fried with soy, sesame, sugar and broth. The careful attention to cutting means that the sauce gets trapped in the kidneys, and its strong taste overcomes the chou wei, the stinky flavor of kidneys.
That's the theory, anyway, and I've had some outstanding preparations of this dish. Then I went to eat at Spicy City, the restaurant in Irvine that replaced Phoenix Food Boutique. I was looking forward to it, because the Chinese sign in the window said "Yunchuan Garden", one of a series of names used by a very good and very reliable chain of Yunnanese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.
I set to on a dish of sesame-slicked cucumbers, five spice-dusted pig's ear and fu qi fei pian, "married couple's lung slices", three of my favorite cold appetizers. When I sat at the shared table, the couple sitting next to me couldn't help themselves. "Are you Chinese?" asked the woman. "Normally Americans won't eat these things."
"I love good Chinese food," I replied in Mandarin, which made both chuckle. The mirth was short-lived, however, because my kidneys showed up not long thereafter.
It looked like a child had been let loose in a kitchen with a cleaver and a pile of kidneys. There were pieces so small that they crisped and started to burn, and there were pieces so large that they were nearly raw in the center. Those few pieces that had managed to escape the depredations of the knife were hacked to bits in the wok. A couple of bites confirmed my fear: the dish had the sour, uric taste I was hoping to avoid.
I must have looked crestfallen, because the couple with whom I was sharing the table looked over with concern. "What's wrong?" the man asked.
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SHOW ME HOW
"Look at this! It was killed twice, once in the slaughterhouse and once in the kitchen! Hen bu hao kan, hen bu hao chi!" The server came when beckoned, and the couple, now slightly embarrassed that a lao wai was a) in this situation and b) able to determine the cause, helped me hold forth at length. The woman promised that it would be cooked correctly the next time; I picked at the vegetables and left.
The next time I went in, I asked them to make sure the head chef, the da shi fu, made my huo bao yao hua. What came out was, if possible, even more poorly prepared. Some of the pieces weren't even scored, and they'd been grossly overcooked; overcooked kidneys are like overcooked calamari--rubbery and unappetizing. The dish was floating in a slick of oil; while Sichuanese and Yunnanese food is known for its oily nature, this was extreme in a dish that doesn't feature much oil.
I haven't tried very much of the menu, so it's not for me to say whether there are gems or whether Spicy City is a write-off. I only ordered the kidneys a second time because of the promise of the waitress. I will say this: I'm not confident, but am willing to be guided to the right dishes to order. Just avoid the kidney flowers.
Spicy City, 14310-F Culver Dr., Irvine; (949) 733-9200.