You know fondue. You love fondue. You have that one fondue pot, maybe even two, tucked up in the back of that high cupboard above the refrigerator and you pull it out and dust it off about twice every winter, once at the holidays and once on a regular old Friday night because it's fun and festive, and it gives you an excuse to invite some friends to the house, open a bottle of Riesling, and wham! It's not just a regular old Friday night anymore. That fondue pot was your grandma's.
Well, if you know fondue you should get to know hotpot, too. It's all of the things described above (fun, festive) with the added bonus of being spicy and really, really warming, which is what you want for all the wintry Friday nights to come.
Some longtime fans were saddened when Little Szechuan on St. Paul's University Avenue changed its concept to hotpot only. After all, this beloved Chinese restaurant had been the gold standard for the chewiest Dan Dan noodles, creamiest tofu, hottest beef ribs, and real-deal cumin lamb. But conventional wisdom in the foodie-verse has it that there aren't enough bona fide Szechuan chefs in these Arctic lands of ours to fill all the Szechuan storefronts that have popped up in the past handful of years.
If this causes you heartache, the full Little Szechuan menu (with the Dan Dan and all the rest) can still be had at two other locations — in Stadium Village in Minneapolis and Shops at the West End in St. Louis Park. But this stretch of University Avenue is Ground Zero for how our large Southeast Asian community really eats — behold the many big families heading inside to gather around the hotpot bowl.
There is an air of mystique to this business of hotpot, even though it's as easy as boiling water. In fact you don't even need to do that, thanks to the hotplate in the center of the table that does all the work for you. The most daunting part of this endeavor is rounding up a bunch of game friends, preferably ones who don't have antipathies to spice, DIY meals, or the occasional squicky thing. "I mean, have an adventure, will you?" That's what you should tell them.
So now that you've got this band of mates, huddle around your hotpot. You'll find a list of choices on a little paper checklist at the table. "Fresh and spicy" is a good place to begin, with one half of the pot a pool of chicken broth and the other side a deep crimson Szechuan chile oil that isn't for the faint of heart, or the faint of anything else. This is fun, rather like gathering 'round a bonfire with your roasting sticks, only this enterprise is a wintertime sport, and we can't get enough of those around here. Let little fights break out at the table over what should and shouldn't be allowed in the hotpot. Beef? Of course! Bullfrog? No way! Chinese broccoli? Everyone loves it.
Also order a bunch of $5 Tsingtaos for the table, pop the tops, and then make your way over to the condiment station. Here you will find chopped fresh garlic, cilantro, sesame oil, chiles, oyster sauce, soy, and bunches of other bits, bobs, sauces, and condiments. Take advantage of them — they're essential to the complete hotpot experience. By now your table should be about half full up with all of these fragrant little flavor starters. In no time at all your proteins and veggies will land, and your table will be ripe for the mother of all Instagram photos. You're going to want to stand up on the chair and take one of those aerial numbers.
If you've been ignoring all of our guidance up until this moment, now is the time to perk up. You're hungry. Your inclination is to start dumping things pell-mell into the broth so you can more quickly get them into your maw. But this is not the thing to do. As our server directed us, we shall direct you: "It's all about taking your time."
Resist the urge to drop things into the broth and then bring them straight to your lips. The folly is twofold: First, you will burn your lips, and second, your bite will not be properly seasoned.
You see, the broth and oil are merely cooking mechanisms. Aside from the tingling burn that is Szechuan chile, there is not much flavor in the pot itself. This is where your trip to the condiment bar pays off. Park a little empty bowl in front of your very own spot, and think of it as your own personal real estate. Regardless of what happens inside the hotpot, no one else may invade your own little bowl. So if in it you wish to drop a frog leg, a dollop of chile oil, a sprinkling of cilantro, and a glug of soy, well, who am I to tell you what to do? Just as you can't tell me I'm not to have a slice of lamb with wood ear mushroom, scallion, and noodle.
If you take a moment to look around, you'll notice that all the hotpots are steaming up the room. The windows are actually fogged, and as you begin to shed your sweaters, you'll notice that you're not just having dinner — you're also taking a shvitz. By the time you're finished, you'll be so thoroughly warmed that you'll actually be looking forward to the chill of winter.
Some disclaimers: The lights are jacked up way too bright so this is probably not a place for romance, unless you woo best to the sweet sounds of Kenny G., in which case, perhaps it is. Also, this is not an experience for just anyone — if your date has a tendency to get hangry, she might become more so during this process. Take advantage of the short list of appetizers. Those famous Dan Dan noodles are discreetly still available, as are a few varieties of dumplings and other noodle dishes. These things will take the edge off before you organize the quadruple enterprise of cracking open another beer, fishing for a lost shrimp, laughing, and sweating the night away.
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