9114 bellaire blvd @ ranchester
last week, i took a hiatus from houston restaurant week, a clouded week of overindulgence in butter, bordelaise, braised short ribs, and creme brulee, to commemorate the beijing summer olympics (or anything for that matter) the way i do best. by eating! we hit chinatown of course! my tummy was looking forward to simple comfort food - one of my favorite things to eat in the world. soup.
on the menu for the evening? sichuan hot pot!
i noticed sichuan hot pot on the menu during my last visit to sichuan cuisine when the houston chowhounds and i were there on our 4 hour soup dumpling crawl. when we walked in this friday evening there were 4 other tables seated with asian patrons. three of those tables already had their own hot pot parties going. this was a good sign! we could see the fiery red pepper spiked broths bubbling, plates of raw meats and veggies laid out, and we were eager to participate ourselves.
we were first seated at a normal square shaped table for 4. when we told our server we were ordering hot pot she first warned us that they close at 10 pm. it was 8:30 at that time, which is an indication that hot pot is usually a long, drawn out affair. i remember when my brother and i used to groan when we found out we were having hot pot at home for supper. it guaranteed that we would be sitting at the dinner table for at least an hour or even longer if we had guests over. our friendly server, the same one from my last visit here, hurried back to the kitchen to tell them to get our soups started and came back with the hot pot menu. she then moved us to a big round table, which we were all excited about.
on the regular menu, sichuan hot pot is listed simply as "house special mini hot pot" for $13.95. however ordering community style hot pot is much more complicated than that. a pen and a separate menu printed on half a sheet of white paper will be brought to you for ordering.
first, choose your soup: yuanyang (half spicy, half mild), all spicy, or all mild. we were ready to go spicy all the way, but the server recommended yuanyang. judging by the look on her face, i knew we had better take her advice.
secondly, pick your raw ingredients, as many as you like:
meats: lamb, shrimp, beef, beef omasum (tripe), lunch meat (spam), intestine, pork blood, fish ball, shrimp ball, crab meat (the fake stuff), sliced fish, sliced chicken, squid
veggies: spinach, gongcai, potato, fungus (mushroom), napa cabbage, eggplant, A choy, cilantro, taro, bamboo shoots, seaweed
others: tofu, cellophane noodles, lo mein noodles, egg (raw), wonton
(L to R) sliced fish, shrimp, tripe, chicken (middle), cilantro, wontons, potatoes, gongcai
A choy, napa, lamb, beef
lastly, pick your dipping sauces: sesame oil, sa tsa sauce (chinese barbecue sauce, made from soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chillis, brill fish and dried shrimp), and/or sesame sauce. dipping sauces cost $1 each for half a small bowl. we ordered the sa tsa and sesame sauce. neither were very interesting, but weren't bad either.
how to eat hot pot: first the electric burner will be brought to the table. by this time we had already scarfed down a plate of 3 cold appetizers selected from the cold table in the back. we chose garlic cucumbers, sliced beef and mow, and sichuan beef jerky. next the hot pot arrives already filled with both broths. huge platters of raw and frozen food start arriving at the table. at this point, the server lights the burner for us.
the premise is simple. raw food goes into the boiling broth and is left long enough to cook. food is then fished it out with chinese spiders and can be dipped in various sauces to taste. ladles are used to scoop out broth which is usually enjoyed after all the food is cooked. i like drinking the soup all the way through hot pot activities. it's my favorite part of the fun!
a few tips. first, wait for the water to boil before throwing in too many cold items. you don't want the temperature to drop too low. frozen foods such as wontons need to be cooked for at least 8 mins, so throw some of those in first. also stalky vegetables, like napa cabbage, along with potatoes, and chicken usually require longer cooking times so put those in too. tripe, fish and shrimp balls, squid, and tofu don't require a lot of time and don't need to be watched too carefully either.
shrimp and thinly sliced meat such as beef and lamb cook the fastest and care should be taken to not overcook them. make sure the broth is boiling before throwing them in and then shrimp should be pulled out as soon as they turn bright pink, sliced meats should cook through after 30 seconds in the pot. noodles are usually cooked through and just need to be reheated. veggies such as spinach an gongcai cook quickly and will shrink when cooked.
a good safety measure to always remember is to dip your chopsticks in the boiling pot for several seconds after handling raw meats. or simply use a separate pair of chopsticks for eating.
the sichuan side of the pot was extremely spicy and ma la. "ma la" means "numb" and "hot" in chinese and refers to the numbing, tingly sensation of sichuan or flower peppers (hua jiao) . the taste is very unique and fragrant with notes of anise and clove. one of my dinner guests had to take a break b/c the ma la was so overwhelming. i told him to stick to the mild side for awhile. if the spicy side gets too overwhelming, one of the advantages of ordering yuan ying is the versatility - you can add some of the mild broth to the sichuan side of the pot to tame the heat. and if you need more broth as it will inevitably evaporate, just ask your server to bring some more around.
the traditional dipping sauce is made by mixing sa tsa, a raw egg, cilantro, chilis, and soy sauce to taste. we forgot to order eggs, and by the time food started arriving i never asked for it. also, several things we ordered never arrived such as squid, tofu, spinach, mushrooms, eggplant, and seaweed. my advice is to ask for 2 copies of the menu, check off the selections you want on each and keep a copy for the table. however, there were no complaints by anyone at our table. we couldn't even finish the food they brought to us. this is what our hot pot looked like when we were done:
chinatown is cheap right? but just how cheap? at sichuan cuisine, hot pot is a per person charge and an all you can eat affair. hot pot for 2 will cost $15 pp, but for 3 or more it is $13 pp. this is also an option for chinese pickle fish soup for $8 a pot extra, which comes with a live fish (i do remember seeing a live fish tank in the back of the resto). no one in the restaurant was eating fish hot pot and i'm not sure i've ever seen it. dipping sauces are $1 each and are enough for 3 or 4 people.
with a full belly, looking at what was left in the hot pot, i asked tatitraveller who just got back from 3 weeks in china what she thought of our dinner. she said she had better sichuan hot pot in a place that specialized in it in beijing, but she said she has also had worse in china. tatitraveller also surmised that the meats here in the US were better quality but decided that the sauces in china were much tastier.
the last tip i leave you with and perhaps the most important one is sichuan cuisine is a BYOB establishment. we stopped by welcome food center in the same shopping center to pick up some cold tsingtao beer to enjoy the evening with. the refrigerated case at welcome was almost DOA. tatitraveller even added that it wasn't bing pijiu (cold beer). how cute that she learned the essential chinese words during her visit there. so stop somewhere else for the booze.