Slurped: A Broth to Treasure at Mister Hotpot
Mister Hotpot lies on the bustle of 8th Avenue in Brooklyn's Chinatown, where you'll find more Fujianese joints than anywhere in the city. Hot pot—the fondue-like meal of dipping meat, vegetables, and noodles into bubbling broth at the table—is the only meal. Beware: this is not your parents' Chinese restaurant. Pop music blares from the speakers, and the tables are populated by hip young Asian kids.
Hot pot, unlike, say, soufflé, does not betray anything by its appearance alone. You cannot tell if the broth is good until you taste it. And even then you cannot make up your mind right away. Does it taste good right when it's brought out? Does it taste good after half an hour of simmering with vegetables and meats? An hour? Hot pot is not only opaque—it also evolves.
The are two broths at Mister Hotpot: a spicy one with lots of chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, what have you, and a not-spicy one. You can order one broth for your meal or split the pot and get both. While the spicy broth is perfectly fine, it's that non-spicy "special broth," made with pork bones and various spices—cinnamon, star anise, and a more esoteric Chinese spice called cai guo, that will outperform most. It is the most important thing about Mister Hotpot, this broth of theirs. As Ed would say, it is "outrageously" porky.
It is, I'll admit, pretty outrageous: the sweet taste of pork marrow, the broth milky white, mimicking that of tonkotsu ramen. At the beginning of the meal you sip it like a tonic. Then as the meal progresses, it boils down, getting richer with each dunked addition, all the while maintaining its sweet porky flavor.
That's the thing about hot pot. If the broth is this good, what else do you need?
For one thing, fresh produce. And yep, they've got that.
Two, good meat. On our visit, we tried only the lamb, the slices thicker than most, and more frustratingly, cut with the grain rather than across. (Not too much of a problem, as long as you dip with care and don't overcook the meat.)
Three, high-quality additions to the pot which are not meat or vegetables. The fish dumplings and fish balls here are chewy and good. We also liked the yam noodles, coiled up into pretty knots, and the rice cakes. Squares of fried tofu soaked up the broth just fine.
Another thing: good accoutrements. At Mister Hotpot, a waiter comes around with a platter of Chinese "barbecue sauce" with lots of dried shrimp, chili paste, scallions, cilantro. Although we were so intrigued with the house broth that most toppings sat unused.
All in all, a great hotpot experience, especially if you are the type of hot pot diner who prizes a well-crafted broth.
Here is my fondest memory for hotpot: it is summer in Shanghai, I am with my family, and I think we are somewhere in the middle of our meal, or maybe even earlier. Our table is an embarrassment of riches. The broth bubbles merrily in the center. From across the table, I see my aunt trying to coax my cousin into eating more. "No one is eating the beef balls," she says, and, in one fell swoop, she deposits all dozen or so beef balls into the broth.
"Noooooo," I cry, with action-movie-like-flourish. My hand is reaching out, my mother is trying to restrain me, but it is too late. I watch the beef balls going in there, plop, plop, plop.
"What is wrong with you?" my mother says.
"What's wrong with me? What's wrong with auntie?" I say. "She's ruined the whole broth! That balance between the herbs and the spices and all the vegetables which have been gradually enriching the broth! It's ruined, I tell you! Ru-ined. Look at the broth. Look at it. What do you see? It's brown, right? And muddy." Then I sip, for proof. "And now it tastes too salty and beefy, because auntie put in all the beef balls! All of them!"
By which point, the entire family is looking at me as though I am slightly deranged.
The moral of the story? Do not lose your cool in front of your entire extended family over beef balls. More importantly, prior to entering a hot pot restaurant, it is of the utmost importance that you lay down the ground rules so that such travesties do not befall your broth.
5306 8th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11220 (map)
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.