Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Little Szechuan Hot Pot
The original Little Szechuan in St. Paul has gone to pot—hot pot, that is. It now only ladles up Szechuan hot pots—an Asian version of fondue that uses boiling stock rather than heated oil or melted cheese. Not to be confused with earthenware “hotpot” cooking offered elsewhere, Szechuan hot pot is a lively and unique DIY meal.
Begin by first selecting a broth from eight options that range from base to exotic, such as a fish with pickled vegetable pot. Next, pick some ingredients from an extensive list of close to 100 items. There are plenty of tame items such as sliced beef, spinach, head-on shrimp, and more than a dozen types of mushrooms, but adventuresome eaters will also find pork kidney, titan arum root, and eel.
The pot of broth is set on an inlaid induction burner with an adjustable heat level. We chose a pot of broth with a divider separating the spicy reddish broth from a milky white base broth. While the pot was heating up, we visited the buffet containing an assortment of condiments such as sweet and sour sauce, oyster sauce, vinegar, sesame paste, MSG, and fleur de sel.
Back at our table, many of our ingredients had arrived and the hot pot was simmering away. Portions are generous, and a group of four will have plenty to eat with no more than a handful of choices. Simply immerse your ladle full of ingredients into the broth, letting them cook to the desired degree, then remove and add sauces. It’s very communal and quite fun; sometimes you end up poaching a companion’s free-floating item, but that’s the way it is.
Some solid bets for first-timers are the sliced sirloin (it does have quite a bit of marbling), chicken dumplings, fresh soft tofu, Chinese broccoli, and vermicelli noodles. When all the ingredients have been cooked, it’s a tradition to end the meal with a bowl full of the resultant enriched broth, but we were too full.
I think Little Szechuan’s hot pot evolution is a great new addition to the local dining scene, and it’s the kind of meal that makes for a lively and delicious family outing. 422 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651-222-1333, littleszechuan.com