In the middle of a congested strip mall, anchored by a Gold’s Gym, the Great Wall supermarket, and Unique Thrift store, sits Uncle Liu's Hot Pot, a blandly decorated restaurant where hungry diners cook their dinner tableside. Hot pot—or Chinese fondue, as some call it—has been around for centuries. Yet, I’m unaware of any other restaurants in the Washington region that specialize in the experience—and it is an experience.
I had my first hot pot with Uncle Liu. It was not complicated or intimidating. Actually, it reminded me of college, when I had my first go at dim sum. There were lots of oohs and ahhs and umms. Hot pot goes like this: you order a big pot of broth, choosing a handful of flavors (spicy, mild, fish, and mushroom, among others); the broth heats up quickly on your tabletop propane burner. Then you order raw servings of your favorite veggies, meats, and seafood ingredients, to cook in the hot pot. Cooking time for each ingredient varies, but most are ready within two minutes. When each piece is done, you remove it, plop it in dipping sauce, and then pop it in your mouth. White or fried rice comes on the side. On a recent trip, Marcus and I ordered beef, shrimp, broccoli, cabbage, veggie dumplings, enoki mushrooms, and lotus root.
Here is my novice opinion: the key to a successful hot pot relies on two things. First, you have to be careful not to forget, or "lose," ingredients in the hot pot. This will result in soggy, overcooked broccoli and tough, chewy shrimp. Forget about your husband's work story. Pay attention to the cabbage.
Second, you have to learn how to concoct a mean dipping sauce, because hot pot is nothing without it. Prior to tasting my first hot pot, I thought the flavor would come from the broth, and, indeed, some of it does, but, like any soup, that flavor takes time to build, and it is not until the end of cooking (and eating) all of the ingredients that the broth itself has strong flavor. At this point, pour the broth onto some rice, just enough to coat it, and then savor each bite.
Back to the dipping sauce: if you want a tasty hot pot, you have to learn how to strut up to the "sauce bar" and, with the blind confidence of Julia Child, select from a bunch of sauces—sesame oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, sa cha, chili, and satay, among others —and mix up a tasty combination. If you have no idea what you are doing, (i.e., if you are like me) then ask the server and she will mix it up for you.
A fortune cookie and orange slices signal the end of dinner at Uncle Liu’s. Here is my fortune: "Keep your plans secret for now." Plans? What plans? The thing about these plans is that they are secret even to me. I will let you in on them when I find out what they are. I hope these secret plans have something to do with a vacation on the Amalfi coast. Perhaps a few nibbles in San Sebastian? Beans and rice in Costa Rica? (Side note: I am planning a vacation, obviously. If you have any great ideas, send them my way).
How does it all taste? I prefer the veggies to the meat ingredients at Uncle Liu's. The thinly sliced beef is too reminiscent of steak-umms (which, by the way, Marcus sees as a plus) and nothing beats a perfectly cooked piece of broccoli, dipped in garlic sauce. Other advice: skip the “potato chips” and lotus root and order the cabbage or mushrooms. Also, order the dumplings (meat or veggie, depending on how you roll).
Hot pot isn’t something I would eat regularly, but it is a special treat, and a fun experience—a great place to visit with a large group. However, if there is such a time for hot pot, it is now: when the cold wind cuts through your winter coat and a tableside Chinese fondue pot will put a little heat in you.