When I was traveling with Washi in Chengdu last month, he was trying to fight off a bad cough. The day we landed, his cough was escalating to Malboro Man heights, so we decided to go to a Chongqing hotpot place to try and chase the cough (and our jetlag) away.
We were going with the concept: Fight fire with fire.
Washi had read about this Chongquing-style hotpot restaurant on a Japanese blog, and it was on our must-do list on our trip. Chongquing is a city in the Sichuan province, just like Chengdu, and is known for its distinctive hotpot variation. After a whirlwind 20 minute taxi ride from our hotel that consisted of whizzing over part of the city on the highway and then weaseling our way through tiny streets as the crowd parted out of our way for us, we arrived at the Qingyang branch of Laoma Tou Hotpot, located within the second ring of Chengdu. There seems to be four locations throughout the sprawling city of Chengdu.
This was a Lawry's style operation with taxi cabs pulling up and attendants opening the door for you. The entrance felt very retro.
Once we were seated, they knew we were clueless tourists and our patient server walked us through the options. Washi had done some research beforehand and brought his iPad along and pointed at some "must have" items -- nao hua (pork brains) and shou gong shao fen (tripe). We were immediately given thick aprons to wear over our clothes and a box of tissues. They were getting us prepared for some serious sport action.
Chongqing style hotpot is characterized by a pot full of pork or chicken broth and lots of oil infused with a potent and medicinal blend of spices (including Sichuan pepper corn, chilis, cinnamon, anise, fennel, cardomom and garlic). Here's the vat of broth before it started bubbling:
Until recently (in about the last 10 years), the broth and oil was rarely changed, and establishments just added more broth and oil to the original mixture. But recently, for sanitary reasons, the city has banned the reuse of oil in restaurants. While most regard this as a step in the right direction for sanitary purposes, others swear that this change has compromised the taste of Chongqing style hotpot.
The broth is deep red in color and it is placed over heat in the middle of the table. Chongqing hotpot is ubiquitous in Chengdu, so we dove in head first on our first night. Since the mixture is very hot (in temperature and spice level), you do not ladle the broth into your bowls, it is purely for flavoring during cooking.
Our server helped us mix our dipping sauce that came out of a small can of about 100ml. He added some fixins including cilantro, vinegar, garlic, oyster sauce and salt. Here's a video of them in action:
Building on the pork brains and tripe, our server suggested some other dishes that came out in quick succession:
I am not sure what this is, but it tasted like a cross between cucumber and a firm melon. It had a great cooling affect and a crunchy texture.
This was a beef dish that our server suggested we get.
This was tender and soaked up the dipping sauce.
The tripe was refreshingly light with a pleasant texture that was neither rubbery or chewy.
These ku shin sai (greens) were a great compliment to all the meat.
And... the brains:
It tasted like shirako (fish gizz) -- very heavy and creamy. Since the brians seemed to be very fresh, there was no stink.
But because it was so rich, I could not finish a whole piece. But I think this protein punch really kicked me out of the jetlag slump.
By the end of the meal, our sinuses were sufficiently cleared and I felt like I perspired the entire amount of my water weight (replaced by tea and beer). Washi was still coughing but the meal was a crazy rush that shocked us into the time zone and reality of Chengdu. After around 200RMB or $35, we were beyond stuffed with lots of leftovers.
LAOMA TOU HOTPOT RESTAURANT
Yulin Zhong Lu #27
Noon until midnight Sunday – Thursday
Noon until 4:30am on Friday and Saturday