Stinky fried tofu at Spices!
Gangsta hot pot
Calamari with mustard
Fish filet bowl at Spices! II
Spicy beef combo
What can I say, I like it hot. Rawr. My pantry and fridge are packed with all kinds of hot sauces and chili oils--I think my Calabrese blood definitely plays a part in my spice addiction. I even got into a "how hot can you handle it?" contest with my creative director at Henry's Hunan years ago while we were at an ad agency lunch. We had the kitchen make the spiciest dish they could muster, and then we added more hot sauce and peppers to it as the competition went on. It was hilarious (and kind of scary) because neither of us would back down, so we had to call a draw. Not sure it helped when I asked for a raise soon thereafter. Maybe.
When a city (hint: ours) has two Szechuan/Taiwanese places called ~SPICES!~ and ~SPICES! II~ within two blocks of each other, you can bet I'd want to check them out. The menus at both of these heat outposts are monstrous. Like, over 100 sweat-inducing items. So after figuring out that some fellow heat-obsessed chef buddies were big fans of Spices! and Spices! II in the Richmond, I thought it would be fun to dine with them and write up what they like to order at each establishment.
While there are some differences between the two places, a few things are the same, namely: an all-female staff of hottie Taiwanese waitresses, loud pop music and TVs blaring music videos and performances, quirky interior design schemes, bright yellow flags flapping outside on the sidewalk like you're coming in for a landing, the price is right, and you're gonna set something on fire. Actually, two things. Anyway, you ready? It's time for a spanking.
First, Spices! And no, the exclamation point is not a mistake. In fact, you'll see it all over the menu, following words like stinky! And fire burst! And they are so NOT kidding about the stinky, sadly. This place is known for their stinky tofu "specialty"--and dag, does it live up to its name. The first time I dined here, as I was getting shown to my table, I walked by a table of diners and my nose was assaulted by a pungent smell, a smell so foul that I hadn't smelled it since my babysitting years. Yeah, so-not-fresh fresh diaper. I looked over at the waitress and asked, "Stinky tofu?" She gave me a knowing nod back to affirm. Eep.
Did I try it? Well, of course I had to go against everything in my heart that was pleading, "DON'T DO IT!" But it was one of those nasty eating challenge things, like balut. I forced myself to try a bite of the fried stinky tofu, and was promptly shoving Szechuan peppers into my maw to burn the stanky taste out of my mouth. One of the nastier things I've eaten. I think some 14-year-old's week-old sweat socks would taste better. But hey, the room full of happy diners scarfing down all kinds of stinky tofu says otherwise. Amazingly, chef Timothy Luym of Poleng Lounge not only didn't mind the dish, he kept eating the stuff. What can I say, he's O.G. And has probably eaten more funky things in his lifetime than I can ever imagine.
I hoped the tofu was going to be like cheese, which sometimes smells nastier than it tastes, like Epoisses. You know, good stinky. But stinky tofu, as a friend of mine likes to say about some things, is the opposite of good. I couldn't even have it on the table one more second, and had to get it cleared, stat. Foul! Put that sh*t in the penalty box, yes, outside.
But to the good stuff. Because man, the eats can be quite good here. Chef Nate Appleman of A16 and SPQR prefers Spices! over Spices! II. His favorite dishes include the spicy pig ear with red oil ($3.95)--thin ribbons of slightly chewy ear that are delicious with the fresh hit of cilantro. It's served cold, so it's one of those dishes that fools you because the heat has nothing to do with the temperature. The numbing spicy beef tendon ($4.25) is another winner, in fact, it's my favorite dish at both Spices locations. It's also served cool, with some sesame oil flair. The salty spears of numbing spicy cucumber ($2.95) make this a perfect side dish (another cool dish).
As for the hot dishes, the cumin lamb ($12.95) is a must-order, just do it. So tender and flavorful, you will keep eating it until it's gone. Explosive chicken wings ($8.95), buried in a foreboding pile of peppers, are also delish--just fried little pieces of bad for you. The kitchen must go through 50-pound-bags of peppers each day, I swear.
Appleman digs this place so much he even has his preferred menu plans. When he's dining solo, he likes to order the twice-cooked bacon, the cucumber, and the eggplant and garlic. When he's with wifey, they get the sweet and sour fish, Chinese watercress with garlic, and yes, the twice-cooked bacon. One night he got VIPed by chef Wang and scored some calamari with hot mustard sauce, so we had to order it. I loved this dish, a take-no-prisoners double play of two of my favorite things: chili and mustard. Hoo hah!
A few things to note: cash only; cold water will not cool your mouth off; the décor is crazy (think bright colors, funky halogen lights, jungle tchotchkes--no, you're not on mushrooms, well, maybe you are, but I wouldn't know that); some dishes verge on the oily/greasy; the servers can be a little, uh, remiss; and this location has a number of hot pots to choose from--you ready for the gangsta hot pot, complete with pig's blood? Go for it.
Bonus point features: the disgustingly named "saliva chicken" (is that because it injures your mouth and makes you drool like a mad dog?), the wall of air fresheners, and not one but two pictures of owner Wang on the walls with some newscaster (I think). Yes, it's the exact same picture.
I found out Spices! II is the favorite location of chef Rob Lam of Butterfly (who gleefully yelled at me on the phone when we were setting up a time to meet, "Your ass is gonna be on fire! It's gonna hurt! Bad!"). It's also a favorite of Ryan Farr, most recently of Orson and now doing his own thing with Ivy Elegance.
So, how does chef Lam like to roll? His favorites are the fish filet in flaming red oil ($12.95); the shredded pork stir-fried with coins of bouncy rice cake, with scallion, cabbage, and shiitake ($7.95); and the unique soup with bamboo skin and squash, sporting a gentle broth with some kick ($6.95/$7.95)--I loved the textures in this dish. The bamboo skin is actually from the heart (the pit) and is rehydrated--it looks like little brains. But is actually vegetarian, have no fear!
I've eaten here the most with chef Farr and his fab wife, who are also addicted to the numbing and incomparable beef tendon, the cumin lamb, the filling and meaty twice-cooked bacon, and the cucumber. Additional winners on their list are the shredded eel with vermicelli, which are almost like gelatinous beans in a veritable lake of fire ($12.95); and from the "snacks" section, the tofu skin braised with five spice and shiitake that offers a nice mellow counterpoint to all the infernal heat and is delicious cold the next day ($6.25); the hot and spicy beef combo with tripe, a medley of meat, sesame oil, and peanuts ($6.25); and the salt and pepper chicken tenders, which are like McNuggets for the devil ($6.95). Just reading that line-up makes me want to head over, right now. Live dangerously and leave the extinguisher at home!
Bonus features at Spices! II: the fish bowl television, the zodiac-inspired drinks (this is just in theory--I have never wanted to drink anything besides beer here), it's a larger space (good for group dinners), they take credit cards, and they have later hours (open until midnight). Don't let the tendon dish freak you out--it's a must. After that, you can ramp up with an intestine dish (you have something like six to choose from). Oh yeah, and the restaurant has "Trenz" in their name, how cool is that? Like, hot.
And for heaven's sake, wash your hands really well after eating here--don't touch anyone in the bathing suit area, especially yourself. Ow!
294 8th Ave.
Cross: Clement St.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Spices! II: Szechuan Trenz
291 6th Ave.
Cross: Clement St.
San Francisco, CA 94118