By rights, Spices 3's menu should be written in neon lights, but the owners have settled for fancy typography to broadcast how exciting their "Szechwan Trenz" food is. Items on the menu have names like "Spicy Eel Strips with Flaming RED Oil" and "Fried STiNKy! Bean Curd with Explosive Chili Pepper." And how can you not order a dish called "Gangsta Casserole Murder Style"? It's a Hong Kong action film of a meal.
Spices 1 and 2, which are located two blocks apart in San Francisco's Richmond district and perpetually offer standing room only, have been some of my favorite restaurants for years. With their cherry-red walls, nonstop Chinese pop videos, and glam-rock servers in asymmetrical haircuts, the Spices draw a wide swath of Asian Americans in their twenties, and their fervid Taiwanese-Sichuan food comes close to justifying the menu's hyperbole. Number 3, which opened in Oakland's Chinatown six weeks ago, makes for a good sequel.
Don't worry: The food doesn't even come close to the nuclear-meltdown levels of spiciness Sichuan food can hit in China the chef may hail from Sichuan, but owner Jack Wang is from Taiwan, where they love spicy, but not quite like the Sichuan Sichuan do and sauces skew sweeter than they would on the mainland. In fact, it's easy enough to put together a chile-free meal of Taiwanese dishes, but if that's all you're up for, why bother?
Like its sister restaurants, Spices 3 favors red on the walls as well as the plate. On the plasma screen above the cash register, Chinese hip-hop videos alternate with in-house commercials. Chic waitresses dart through the room, bearing improbable serving dishes boats, pots hanging above lighted Sterno cups while the Charlie of these angels lounges near the back, pimpin' spice, long hair fluffed, and black shirt open to the navel.
Most nights, the room heats up by eight as families with small children cede their spots. Younger adults keep the joint cracking until midnight. The service is unflaggingly sweet and more than a little chaotic at the peak of the crush, but the servers keep things moving quickly, and when you remind them of something they forgot, it appears on your table within a minute or two.
Spices' cooks love chile oil, which they often use in place of a sauce, as a transparent coating that carries heat and aroma but doesn't obscure the primary ingredients. If the sight of so much oil alarms you, you'll find smaller doses of it on the small plates. It pools around the "chicken with RED oil," tingling where it touches, but you can clearly taste the cool poached chicken underneath. A sweeter, milder chile oil coats "numbing spicy" cucumber spears, a bread-and-butter pickle that wants to be a rock star. Golden mustard-chile oil is spooned over raw strips of calamari, the contrast between the demure squid and its violently pungent coating worthy of a Tarantino film. If you're not afraid of a little oil, order chicken, beef, tofu, or eel with "flaming RED oil" known as "water boiled" dishes in many Sichuan restaurants where you can barely see the meat underneath a cup or two of the stuff, with chopped raw garlic and chile flakes sprinkled on top for extra measure. (The chicken version I tasted was good but not great the white meat didn't have any flavor to back up the pyrotechnics.)
But capsaicin isn't all you'll find. A good small dish to have on hand for its cooling effects is the non-numbing pickled cucumbers, which are marinated in a rice wine vinegar and a little sesame oil. There are a dozen types of sautéed greens, from Napa cabbage with ham to bok choy, lettuce, and ong choi quickly stir-fried with garlic. I loved Spices 3's Chinese watercress, which had enough wok-char from the pan to give the crisp dark greens a meaty, almost smoked overtone. Most of the rice plates and "family combination" (3 for $20) dishes, like beef with broccoli or minced chicken with corn, are chosen to appeal to more conservative palates. For the lion-head meatballs, loved in both Shanghai and Taiwan, the cooks mold ground pork, cabbage, and shrimp into softball-sized rounds with a texture reminiscent of matzoh balls and "red-cook" them in a rich soy-based sauce.
Spices 3's other Taiwanese specialty, STiNKy tofu, deserves every capital letter you can throw at it. How stinky is stinky? Perhaps you'll be bent over your rice bowl and your brain will flash, "Huh did someone leave the bathroom door open?" Some stinky tofu is probably emerging from the kitchen. If the table next to you orders a plate, the funk wafting your way may leave you lightheaded. Before it's cooked, stinky tofu spends a few hours in a brine made from vegetables and shrimp that has taken six months to properly culture. The restaurant serves it braised with intestines, stir-fried with pork, or "salt and pepper" deep-fried with jalapeños and Thai basil which one waitress told me is the most gringo-friendly version. The latter had the consistency of ricotta, as much umami (savor) as an aged steak, and twice the pungency of a ripe, runny French cheese. It took a couple bites for the stinky tofu to grow on me four or five later, it grew off me again. Hey, maybe next time.
Two of my favorite dishes from Spices 1 have made it to Oakland, not as mind-blowing as the original versions but still delicious: the cumin lamb, coated in Central Asian spices and tangled up in caramelized onions and peppers, and the "fish fillet with explosive chili pepper." The restaurant's second most forbidding-looking dish, the fish (or chicken wings or stinky tofu) is battered and deep-fried in oil along with, oh, three cups of dried red chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, and sesame seeds. You have to hunt through a wooden boat heaped high with peppers to pluck out bits of crispy, salty meat, whose bite is fierce and quick. A swig of beer easily dissipates the burn, but since there's no liquor license yet, a spoonful of rice will have to do.
The most forbidding-looking dish on Spices 3's menu is arguably the "gangsta casserole murder style," a hot pot cooked at the table. The friend who'd campaigned the hardest for the gangsta casserole even after the waitress told us that "murder style" meant pork stomach, blood, and skin took one look at the pot when it arrived and announced he didn't think he was up to the challenge, which left three quarts of stew for the rest of us. Sweat popped out from parts of my face that never perspire as I sipped at the hot pot, the only dish at Spices that had that effect on me, but the broth underneath the thick layer of oil and peppers had a phenomenal meatiness, and all the offal, mixed seafood, and vegetables that simmered in it were fresh. If you have no appetite for felony, the lamb hot pots with cumin, chiles, or rice wine and ginger are often just as good.
All hail the arrival of Spices 3, stimulator of palates, clearer of noses, conqueror of the colon. You don't have to be a culinary daredevil to enjoy its many delights, but if you can't take some heat, stay out of this kitchen.