Since spending some time in Thailand a year ago, my standards for spicy have changed. Historically, I’ve been a wimp, something I’ve never been shy about. At around thirteen, when my eight year old sister had a higher spice tolerance than me, I embarked on a quest to build up some tolerance. I’ve always been a fan of the flavors that come with spice: chili, wasabi, horseradish, but the amount that I could eat has always been limited by my abilities. Then I spent three weeks in Thailand, where I discovered a deep love for the Bird’s Eye chili, commonly called Thai Chili. Spicyness in the U.S. has a tendency to leave much to be desired, though finding the truly spicy is not impossible. You needn’t look further than Newark Shopping Center It’s a good hint when, at a Mexican restaurant for instance, there are people sitting in the next booth over speaking Spanish to their young children. Hot Pot is Chinese in origin, so to see a happy little Asian family a couple of booths over indicated greatness.
For those unfamiliar with hot pot, it’s a bit like fondue, all told. The kitchen prepares a couple broths, which come in a pot set upon a burner built into the table. The menu items are ingredients, which are for adding to the broth: your choice of noodles, vegetables, mushrooms, and of course meats. There’s easy meats, like beef and pork (and a wealth of seafood), and the adventurous eaters out there will be delighted to hear that ox tongue, beef tendon, whole shrimp, and wood ear mushrooms are all perfectly available, and some are even cheaper than the more regular foods. We ordered the wood ears, ox tongue, headless shrimp (labeled triple shrimp), corn on the cob, and some spinach. Morgan’s broth was mushroom and vegetable broth with glass noodles, mine the lowest intensity of hot (spicy) broth and udon. This lowest intensity is called “medium” (the other two are “hot” and “extra hot”), and is noticeably hotter than most food available at most restaurants nearby. I’ve gotten the hot before, and let me tell you, it’s unbelievable. It’s the kind of hot that goes beyond pain and loops back up around to pleasure. It’s invigorating in the same way that extreme sports are, despite the fact that there’s no actual danger. Learning that capsaicin is an oil changed the way that I interact with spicy foods. The water in your glass won’t dissolve it, but if you can use it to clear out the burning oil coating the inside of your mouth, the pain will subside sooner.
Even despite this tactic, the soup was hot. Both in temperature and in Scovilles, but it was also absolutely delicious. I do not like things that have no flavor besides the heat; I feel that they are a waste of the pain. It’d be like a cake that is only sweet, with no other flavors. This broth is far from that. Yes, there were more szechuan peppercorns than I could ever have counted and bird’s eye chilis floating in the broth, but just the difference between those will create a diverse flavor. And there was no getting around it being temperature hot; the meats arrived raw and still a bit frozen. This is one of my favorite parts of the experience: the ability to cook everything to order. Tongue is perhaps my favorite cut of meat. It tastes just the same as the rest, but has a delightful springy texture that, unless it’s grossly overcooked, is in no way rubbery. It’s interesting to chew without being too different from the more popular cuts of meat.
If you’re looking for a new eating experience, or to recreate a food experience you’ve had overseas, grabbing some Hot Pot on Main Street in Newark just might be the thing for you. Who knows? You might discover a hitherto unknown love for wood ear mushrooms (which are rubbery without being chewy; it’s a marvelous thing) or crunching down hard on a szechuan peppercorn. Either way, it’s an experience I can’t recommend enough, sitting pretty in our own backyard.