It always begins with the click-click-click of the ignition and the soft whoosh of compressed gas. The sight of blue flames bathing the bottom of the pot is the signal to complete a dozen tiny tasks: fidgeting with wooden chopsticks, stirring together a dipping sauce, watching for the broth to bubble. Hot pot is the quintessential winter meal in many Asian cuisines. At its sparest, it can be a simmering bowl of water in which to cook a few raw ingredients; more elaborate versions involve rich stocks, condiment bars, and prime cuts of meat. Because hot pots involve no culinary virtuosity, no complicated flavors, it has taken me years to fall in love with them. The ritual of the communal meal is what finally won me over. There's no formality possible when you and your tablemates are swishing your chopsticks through a shared pot to fish for the last speck of beef. There's no pressure to finish one course before the next one arrives, and little reason to focus on anything but your company and the pot in front of you. Most of all, to spend hours leisurely eating and talking around a fire—no matter that it was fueled by a canister—is a rare, and welcome, winter treat. Searching to compare Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese versions, I found all three within a few blocks of one another in the International District. Sichuanese Cuisine, which right now is missing an English-language sign (it blew down, says the manager), has been around 20 years, long enough to earn its Chinese name, "Old Sichuan." The little restaurant, as worn and comfortable as a tattered pair of cargo shorts, couldn't be much plainer. Same with its Sichuan-style hot pot—which is what I like most about it. Our waiter placed a beat-up aluminum bowl on the burner. It was bisected so one side contained a murky brown beef stock and the other a spicy broth coated in an eighth-inch of chili oil. While both came to a boil, my friends and I spooned dabs of peanut-sesame sauce into serving bowls, then began to pick from the platters on the table. Even the simplest hot pot is a colorful meal: the vermilion of the half-frozen shavings of beef, the untempered green of raw broccoli and baby bok choy quarters, the white of napa cabbage and sliced honeycomb tripe (quick note: though the tripe is listed on the menu, if you're not Asian you'll have to request it specifically, which I know because the waiter told me flat out). For two dollars more ($12.95 a person as opposed to $10.95) you can get lamb, which comes to the table in thick, half-frozen rolls of meat and turns buttery in the broth. Worth the splurge. We first slid a few tofu cubes into the pot to braise, then started dipping slices of meat just long enough to cook them through and left the vegetables to simmer longer. As I fished each item from the pot, I dredged it through my bowl of sauce. I alternated between the spicy and mild sides of the pot. The genius of the hot pot is that as everyone sits around the burner, dropping things in to cook, the stock simmers down and the water becomes a flavorful soup. But even at the start of the meal, the regular broth had enough character to augment the flavor of the ingredients we cooked in it. The spicy side lacked the citrus-floral aroma and lip-buzzing effects of Sichuan peppercorns that other, better versions I've tried have. But then it also wasn't so hot as to be unbearable, as other versions have been. Just as we were measuring out the last few slices of cabbage and getting ready to turn off the burner, the waiter showed up with one last plate to make sure we wouldn't walk out hungry: a platter of thumb-sized pot stickers. Next door to Sichuanese Cuisine, Thanh Vi is decorated with a casino owner's eye for color and an encyclopedic approach to menu writing. Though the owners advertise the restaurant's Vietnamese hot pot on their front window, you'll have to search through the back pages of the menu to find it (it's in the soup section). We ordered the "hot and sour hot pot with seafood" ($18.95 for two, though it actually served three), and the owner delivered an aluminum pot filled with a clear, lightly orange-tinged broth with okra, scallions, tomatoes, pineapples, and fried shallots floating on top. On the side: one platter for raw shrimp (a pound at minimum), scored squid bodies, fake-crab stalks, and halved fish balls. On another platter was heaped bean sprouts, cilantro, several varieties of mint, and slices of bac ha, a porous stem that softens up enough as it cooks to soak up the broth without losing its vegetal snap. We made nests of thin rice noodles in the bottoms of our bowls while the seafood and vegetables cooked, then ladled the soup overtop, finishing off the bowl with fresh herbs; this was the only hot pot I was given a spoon to eat. The sweet tamarind-pineapple tanginess of the broth slowly intensified as the pot bubbled away. Six blocks away, at Bush Garden, I watched the same ritualistic click, whoosh, and the arranging of tiny plates. This time, the hot pot was called shabu-shabu; it was a thin dashi broth flavored with dried tuna and kelp. The rambling 50-year-old restaurant once attracted everyone from World War II vets to Japanese royalty. Recently it's been more famous for its raucous karaoke than its cuisine. But the shabu-shabu is still on the menu, and eaten in one of the restaurant's semi-enclosed booths, it becomes an especially intimate meal. Shabu-shabu is named for the sound the beef makes as it swish-swishes through the hot broth. At Bush Garden, it's accompanied by three dips: a sesame sauce for the meat, a tangy ponzu sauce for the vegetables, and a teaspoon of sweet hoisin for, well, whatever you want to roll around in it. We paid two dollars extra for Kobe-style beef ($15.95 a person); the paper-thin slices were streaked with white, marbled fat. Ten seconds of shabu-shabu-ing, and the red morphed to brown, the fat dissolved, and the beef crinkled up. I'd quickly swish it through one of the dipping sauces and let the rest of it melt away in my mouth. While varied and far from limp, Bush Garden's vegetables didn't have the vibrant freshness of the other places', and since the broth was so thin, it took a while for the beef, onions, carrots, cabbage, and mushrooms to infuse the simmering stock with their flavors. The server, however, kept watch over the table, returning to make sure we knew what we were doing, skim the impurities floating on top of the pot, and even add a little extra water when the level of the broth got too low. At the very end, when we had finished off the beef and as many vegetables as we could take, we scooped udon noodles into the now-savory broth, then ferried them with a spoon onto our personal plates to slurp up. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sichuanese Cuisine 1048 S. Jackson St., 720-1690, www.sichuanesecuisine.com. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Thanh Vi 1046 S. Jackson St., 329-0208. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Bush Garden 614 Maynard Ave. S., 682-6830, www.bushgarden.net. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT. Open for lunch Mon.–Sat. and dinner daily.