Build your own hot pot feast at Little Szechuan in St. Paul

Hot pot is a common feature of local Chinese restaurant menus. The classic east Asian stew is a year-round delicacy thanks to a spicy broth that keeps the winter cold at bay and coaxes out the spices of summer. Until now there were no local restaurants that dedicated their entire menus to it, so Little Szechuan reinvented their St. Paul outpost as a hot pot haven. While the concept seems kitschy, much like a fondue restaurant, the strict focus on Szechuan-style hot pot serves as a good introductory point for diners unfamiliar with the concept.

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While Little Szechuan's décor hasn't changed much, the tables now have five burners atop them to cook the hot pot. A paper menu outlines the sixty or so options that can accompany the hot pot. If you want to eat on the cheap, order one or two of these choices; portions are large and the price adds up fast. A section of the restaurant's left wall houses a sauce bar, an offering of eight different sauces and spices -- ranging from the maligned sweet and sour sauce to a delightful satay -- used to garnish the hot pot.

The broth comes in shiny silver pots, available in two sizes, a small pot sufficient for an individual portion and a large pot designed for group dining. It takes three minutes to boil the food before diners can reap their reward. Small pots require multiple go-rounds to cook all the fixings.

The Ma-La broth ($6) is best when tempered by sweet and sour sauce. While the use of said condiment is tantamount to heresy in most instances, it's the only way to calm the body-numbing spice attack that comes with the territory. Our selection of accoutrements consisted of Szechuan cured pork ($6), seaweed bundles ($3) and Chinese broccoli ($3). Szechuan cured pork is fancy nomenclature for pork belly, and the marbled fat acted as a sponge to the five-alarm spice. The seaweed bundles possessed a faint fishiness in both smell and taste, a delightful addition in flavor, but were cumbersome in size. The Chinese broccoli was cruciferous, and will disappoint diners anticipating traditional broccoli, but it adds much-needed fresh greenness to the hot pot's heft.

Order the standard broth ($2) for a more pleasant foray into the world of hot pot. It's chicken noodle soup on steroids, hearty with a tad of spice. For the spice-sensitive, this is the best option. But heat lovers can jack up the temperature to their heart's content with one of the myriad sauces. We ordered ours with Szechuan crispy pork ($6), Chinese broccoli ($3) and yam noodles ($3). Skip the Szechuan crispy pork. It was rubbery and challenging to chew. The yam noodles were a pleasant surprise, and lack the starchy punch associated with the root vegetable. Instead they're glassy, thick and quite slurpable.

Little Szechuan improves upon the typical mix-and-match concoctions by offering an authentic selection of ingredients. While certain combinations don't work and certain ingredients are unpalatable, part of the fun of hot pot is the trial and error experience. No two pots are alike, and between the base, fixings, and sauce, you're bound to leave satisfied.

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