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A Sizzling Scene

Marionettes and hanging lanterns adorned with firecrackers and Mardi Gras beads greet you as you step off the popular Valencia Street thoroughfare and into this lively 1920s Old Shanghai-inspired hot spot. Firecracker was not named to describe how spicy the food is (you can find all degrees of spiciness here), but rather for the atmosphere --symbolizing festivity and good times. Upon entering, the energy engulfs you. Regardless of the night, you'll find festive groups gathered, first-dates or longtime couples commingling, and content solo diners engaged in a book or the paper -- Mission hipsters and neighborhood locals alike -- with their common bond being the delicious dishes, attentive service, and inclusive ambience.

So Lee, the chef and owner, is quick to point out that his food is not Asian-fusion, but rather "quality Chinese food with a twist." From the moment it opened in 1997, Firecracker set itself apart from ordinary Chinese restaurants. Certainly the non-Chinatown location helped, but the eye-catching interior design, fashioned by Lee's brother, and the animated yet intimate atmosphere also contributed to its distinctiveness. Tables and metal chairs line the red walls, a large mirror on one side opens the space, and a few tables run through the middle. At the opposite end is the bar with flashy red stools facing the little open kitchen, where the chefs masterfully work the hot woks. It's cozy, some might say cramped, but once you're seated, it doesn't really matter. At times it gets pretty noisy, especially when Mariachi bands come in to serenade the diners -- but even that adds to the charm and is definitely something you'd never find in any other Chinese restaurant.

Small details count; like the tiny dishes of peanuts and pickled radish set onto the table to nosh on while studying the menu. Although tempting, just sample a few and save room for the "real" food. The wine selection is adequate; however, during our visit, they did not stock all the wines on their list. After returning three times without the wine selections my friend chose, the waitress was apologetic, poured a few sample tastes, and advised us on which wine would pair best with our food. Beer, sake, and tea are also available.

As with any Chinese restaurant, going with a group is the best way to sample a wide assortment of dishes, family-style. Most of the starters are a variation of traditional Chinese appetizers like pot stickers, spring rolls, and dumplings. The standout starter dish is the crab rolls ($7), thin, surprisingly light and crispy, filled with crab and veggies, and served with a cucumber-lime dipping sauce. For the main course, the wok-seared Ahi tuna ($16) is an all-time favorite. The tuna is encrusted in ginger and peppercorns, wok seared, sliced, and served over a bed of caramelized onions. A close second is the mango shrimp ($14) sweet, tangy, and spicy at the same time. The "Phoenix and Dragon" ($12), a combo of chicken, prawns, and eggplant in a plum sauce spiked with tangerine and tomato juices, and the "Yin Yang Prawns" ($14), another combo dish that is half walnut prawns and half spicy hot-braised prawns, are both perfect for those who like to taste a little bit of everything. Firecracker chicken ($11), dry woked in a sweet garlic sauce; pine nut chicken ($11) with a bit of curry; and five-spice duck ($12) are other house specialties.

Vegetarians are in luck here. Lee insists on using only the freshest ingredients, nothing comes from a can. Pea sprouts and fresh shitake mushrooms ($9) with sesame wine sauce is a light, delicate dish that maintains the distinct flavor of both vegetables. The sautéed string beans ($8) remain crisp, garlicky, and spicy – a standard for a Chinese restaurant.

As with most Chinese restaurants, don't expect a lavish dessert menu -- just ice cream and tea. Most likely after your meal, you'll be pleasantly stuffed and a simple fortune cookie will do.