A Few Of LA's Best Skewer Hot Pot Restaurants
A hot pot restaurant is the dining equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Hovering around a cauldron of fragrant broth filled with red chile bombs and Sichuan peppercorns, you wait for the perfect moment to drop in oyster mushrooms, napa cabbage, bean sprouts, daikon, sesame paste, egg tofu, fish balls, prawns and all manner of thinly sliced meats and offal. Most of these will take mere seconds to cook but this fact only partially tempers the anticipation.
Often, your meal comes with a literal splash of danger. You have to fish around in the steaming pot with your chopsticks or ladle, trying to retrieve coveted ingredients without burning yourself. For clumsy eaters who want to keep all three layers of skin (is that too much to ask?), there is another way — chuan chuan xiang hot pots.
Chuan chuan xiang hot pot restaurants serve ingredients on skewers instead of loose, on plates, which has several advantages.
Sliding skewers into boiling broth generally means less splashback. The skewers are also easier to retrieve and they're typically one-bite, allowing you to sample more items because you don't have to order an entire plate. Ingredients are often self-serve so if a skewer of tender beef wrapped around a mass of enoki mushrooms or a strip of delicate tofu skin or a single spicy chicken heart strikes your fancy, all you have to do is reach into one of the refrigerators in the dining area and grab one. Plus, who wants multiple people swirling their chopsticks in the same pot while we're in the midst of a pandemic?
Originating in the city of Chengdu in China's Sichuan province, skewer hot pot restaurants have been popular since the 1980s. They've been showing up in Southern California since at least 2018 and, sadly, a few have closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. As with so many food trends, ground zero is the San Gabriel Valley, the epicenter of regional Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles County.
As the weather cools down (we hope!), this is the perfect time to try a chuan chuan xiang hot pot. These four restaurants excel at them.
Malubianbian, which means "side of the road," is a beloved chain from Sichuan. Inside its two SGV outposts, blueberry-hued tables draw inspiration from the blue of Chinese opera masks while the walls are painted with scenes from China in the 1980s, a nod to when chuan chuan xiang was popularized. It has the typical make-your-own-sauce buffet, where you can build your sauces from scratch by combining cilantro, green onions, oyster sauce and satay, among other options. What's unique at Malubianbian is the pre-made paste of crushed peanuts and dried chili. It's not finished until you get to your table and fill your sauce bowl with a spoonful of broth from your hot pot. The result is a slightly sweet, buttery, spicy mouthful.
Choose from four soup bases — special spicy pot, special spicy dripping pot, spicy mushroom or spicy tomato — any of which can be customized with three levels of heat. Then, pick among more than 30 skewered vegetables, seafood options and meats. Skewers cost $.38/each and consist of one bite of food. More expensive cuts of meat are skewered with two or more pieces. A two-person meal of 50 skewers, a couple bunches of chrysanthemum leaves and a plate of egg tofu will run you $35 - $40/person. Both locations have indoor and outdoor seating. They're open for dinner, Monday - Thursday. They open at noon Friday - Sunday.
- 301 W. Valley Blvd, Ste 112-113., San Gabriel. 626-656-6140.
- 18194 Colima Rd., Ste A., Rowland Heights. 626-820-9206.
Nice 2 Meet U
Tucked into the corner of one of SGV's countless strip malls, Nice to Meet You is larger than most self-serve chuan chuan xiang hot pot places, with 26 tables. The nondescript exterior hides a sleek interior decorated with muted Chinese lanterns and antique carved wood dividers where Chinese techno and rap throbs from the speakers. The three soup bases — house spicy beef tallow, tomato and spicy soup, and mushroom soup and spicy soup — can be customized to your heat preference. We recommend the tomato and spicy soup base, which has a satisfying sweet and tangy flavor.
You can choose from approximately 25 different skewers including spicy beef-wrapped enoki mushrooms, duck tongue, pork belly, oyster mushrooms, bok choy, prawns and fishballs. Combo plates of unskewered vegetables (crown daisy, spinach, napa cabbage) and mushrooms are also available. At the sauce buffet, all ingredients are clearly labeled in English. Don't miss the rich, housemade sesame oil, which is the perfect base for your dipping sauce. You get a lot of bang for your buck at Nice to Meet You. A two-person meal with all the fixings will cost approximately $30/per person, before tip.
- 227 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. 626-293-7099.
- 18194 Colima Rd, Ste A, Rowland Heights. 626-293-7099
Championed by Jonathan Gold, Chengdu Taste is often credited with bringing authentic Sichuan cuisine to L.A. While it's known mainly for its toothpick cumin lamb, mouth-burning cold, diced rabbit and dramatically plated lionfish (served standing on its stomach), it also offers chuan chuan xiang skewers, which are served ready to eat so you don't have to cook them tableside. A server brings a shallow bowl to your table along with a tower of skewers standing upright in a bowl of chili oil. Each contains one bite, maybe lotus root or chicken or a bit of pig intestine.
The special at Chengdu Taste, Boiling Vegetable and Meat in Sichuan Style Special Hot Sauce, is a jaw-numbing, peppery oil topped with sliced serrano chilis and a heap of Sichuan peppercorns. Don't sleep on the mung bean jelly with chili sauce, a refreshing appetizer topped with peppercorns, peanuts and chilis. Expect to spend $55 - $60 for a meal for two people.
- 828 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. 626-588-2284.
Szechuan-style restaurant The Hibiscus Tree replaced the beloved Green Zone restaurant inside Valley Plaza. The interior is clean and modern, seating roughly 30 people. Customers are greeted by neon signage in Mandarin Chinese that translates to "under the hibiscus tree." A dramatic wall-sized artwork features a Chinese empress with piercing red eyes.
Hibiscus Tree specializes in maocai, a Sichuanese stew-like dish. It's similar to hot pot except the ingredients are fully cooked when they arrive at the table. You can also opt for regular hot pot in four different flavors of soup base: the signature red oil, tomato, rattan pepper and pork bone. At the buffet, pre-cooked skewers are available for $.68 apiece. You can order a pre-set selection of skewers in either green or red chili sauce. Hibiscus Tree is currently offering a Yelp check-in deal for a free Szechuan Style Dessert, which consists of a clear jelly topped with dates and goji berries. It makes a solid ending to a fiery meal. Prepare to fork over $35 - $40/person for dinner for two.
- 534 E. Valley Blvd., Ste. 4-5., San Gabriel. 626-872-0140.
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