We've sunk below "let it snow" cold and into "if I call in sick I don't have to go outside today" weather—the kind of winter chill that takes no prisoners, that needs something more than chicken soup to fight back. This is the time for hot pot.
Hot pot, the broth-based fondue with meat, fish, vegetables, tofu, noodles, dumplings, and more cooked in a bubbling cauldron in the center of the dining table, is more elusive in New York's Chinese restaurants than we'd like. Those that do sometimes outfit specific tables with heating elements for the pots, which makes for even more limited availability that you may need to reserve in advance.
We'd heard some good things about the hot pot at Hot Kitchen in the East Village, enough to check it out one frigid evening. On Fridays and Saturdays, Hot Kitchen's hot pot tables are in high enough demand that you may want to make a reservation. Weeknights are easier to score.
Hot Kitchen's hot pot is a la carte, which means you pay a base rate for broth and then check dunk-ins off a paper menu and pay per item. The basic soup base costs $8, plenty for a table for four, and can be ordered in mild with herbs, spicy with chilies, of half-and-half—both broths in the same pot separated by a thin barrier. We found the mild broth bland and the spicy broth hellishly hot with plenty of chili oil; order a mix of the two to keep your taste buds in balance.
Dunk-ins run $3 to $10 apiece, from lamb, beef, spinach, and lunch meat to blood curd, shrimp balls, kelp knots, and tree fungus. Lamb has a mild gaminess, though we would have preferred fattier cuts; fish filets stay tender even when left in the broth for a while. There are several varieties of tofu, always a good idea to let soak up the broth for a while, and greens like chrysanthemum are crisp if not impeccably fresh. Fish balls and blood curd have a nice bounce, lotus root a slight crunch. We'd recommend sticking to one meat or fish, one leafy green, some tofu, and definitely an order of fish balls for the most balanced pot.
Toppings of sesame paste, oily garlic sauce, crushed peanuts, and ground dried chilies are simple but done well, enough to customize your bowl however you'd like. Though Hot Kitchen doesn't offer as many sauces as Little Sheep or Little Pepper, the ones it does use work nicely.
Consider ordering from Hot Kitchen's a la carte menu to round out your order. Cheng Du Pickled Vegetables ($5), mostly cabbage with some carrot, have a prickly, tangy heat. Dan Dan Noodles ($6) are softer than ideal but rich with sugar, oil, and black vinegar. And smashed Cucumbers with Scallion Sauce ($6) help lighten up bowl after bowl of hot pot.
Is Hot Kitchen our favorite hot pot in town? No—the broths could be more flavorful, the meat and vegetables more fresh— but it gets the job done in a neighborhood with few other options for the craving. Have another spot we should check out? Let us know in the comments.