When B and I first lived together in Santa Monica, CA, our downstairs neighbors would often set up a hot pot on their patio and cook meat and vegetables for dinner. They also set up a torch lamp that shone light directly up into our bedroom rather than down onto their dinner (grrr), but the point is that we observed a lot of hot pot eating in our first few years together.
For some reason, despite seeing and smelling hot pot-style cooking every week, it took almost eight years together before we ever sat down to a hot pot of our very own. Thank you to the new Mala Tang in Arlington for providing us with that opportunity.
Hot pot cooking is what it sounds like: it's a hot pot full of broth that you dip thin slices of meat or veggies in to cook. Different cultures have different names for it (shabu shabu, anyone?) and different levels of spice and flavor in the broth. Mala Tang specializes in Sichuan-style hot pot, which uses the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn for flavor. (Mala translates roughly to "numbing and spicy hot"). Not to worry if you're a spice wimp. You can ask for mild broth in your hot pot.
One unique feature of Mala Tang is that each diner gets an individual hot pot. In a lot of hot pot restaurants, you share one or two pots with your whole group. The individual pots allow people of all spice preferences and dietary needs to dine together, and it makes for a fully interactive experience as everyone is in charge of cooking their own dinner.
The Mala Tang space is large and airy with intricately-detailed tables and chairs. There is a large bar area and patio where you can pretend to be our old neighbors and get your hot pot on under the stars.
Being hot pot rookies, we opted for the set-price menu which, for $30 each, allows each person to select the following from a list: an appetizer, hot pot broth with one protein and two vegetables, and dessert. For our appetizers we selected the spicy wontons and spicy cold noodles. Both featured tender noodles and a healthy dose of the mala spice. Overall, a good way to kick off the experience.
This is the point in the post where I wish I could tell you about how much I liked the dan dan noodles. I read a lot about them before going to Mala Tang, so even though they weren't on the fixed price menu, I tried to order them in addition. Unfortunately our waiter forgot about them, so no dan dan noodles for me. It turned out to be a good thing because we had plenty of food to go around.
And now for the main event! Between us we had beef, enoki mushrooms, broccoli, bean sprouts, shrimp, and white mushrooms. Our waiter gave us cooking instructions (things cook very fast!) and we were off to the races dipping and swishing and dunking the cooked items into the various dipping sauces.
I'm so short that I had a hard time seeing what was in my pot. Maybe a booster seat next time... Nevertheless, we successfully cooked and ate a massive pile of food in no time flat. While maybe not the most impressive ingredients we've ever had in our lives, the punch from the broth and dipping sauces created a really flavorful and fun experience.
The dessert portion of the meal was, well, really bad. They offered a choice between pumpkin pie (in August?) and sesame balls. They were out of pumpkin pie so we got the sesame balls, which were flat, oily, flavorless fried things that A) did not have sesame seeds on them, B) were not balls, and C) in no way resembled the classic "jin dui" that B's mom loves to order at dim sum. Seriously, they'd be better off going to the Giant next door and buying some ice cream to dish up. B always says "my people don't do dessert," but I've had some really good Chinese desserts and Mala Tang's does not come close to making the list.
Lots of Yelpers claim you can get much cheaper hot pot at other local places and they're probably right. At Mala Tang you pay a premium for a spiffy new space.
The premium also includes "entertainment", at least on the weekends. As we finished our meal we noticed a guy in a mask standing near the restroom. Suddenly, the lights dimmed, music played, and the costumed man began to walk between the tables in a semi-dance flipping off one mask to reveal another with a different expression painted on its face. Then, he blew a big fire ball that proceeded to catch his cape on fire, much to the shock of the people at the table next to him. He quickly extinguished his cape, took some pictures with a birthday boy, and dashed off into the kitchen. As B and I exchanged completely baffled looks, we asked our waiter how often he lights himself on fire. Our waiter deadpanned, "about once a week." Everyone went back to their meals like nothing had happened and we left, scratching our heads. Anybody know what that's about?
Mala Tang provided us with a tasty meal and a good story about a guy in a mask catching himself on fire. What more can you ask for?
Second Thoughts from B
I have a few confessions to make. I really did not like our hot pot cooking neighbors from Santa Monica which may taint my view of Mala Tang. I also burned my tongue on some freshly cooked meat, so my ability to taste all the hot pot goodness may have been lost.
With those two elements working against me, I have to say that I enjoyed our appetizers much more than our hot pot. The noodles were served in a savory sauce that had a little kick for complexity, and the texture was perfectly Jello-like (that might not sound appetizing but I love noodles that jiggle).
As for the hot pot, I think I missed something. The aroma was great and it made you want to sip directly from the boiling caldron of flavor. However, my dippables only picked up a hint of that flavor, which combined with a burned tongue, made the meal a little disappointing.
Now for one last confession. J mentioned the sesame balls. They were unappealing to me on paper and nothing changed when a pair showed up in front of me. Since I was taught not to waste food, I quickly took advantage of J's trip to the bathroom by putting one of my sesame balls on her plate. When she got back, I successfully convinced her that we were both given 3 balls and I was down to my final one. Sorry babe, my people don't do dessert... but oh boy do they do noodles!