Midway through our meal at Hot Kitchen, my friends and Ilooked at each other and grinned. Our cheeks flushed a rosy pink as our eyesbegan to smart. Beads of perspiration formed at our temples, matting hair toscalps. “Yep,” I said. “We officially have Spicy Face.”
Such a pleasant (though homely) condition occurs wheneating copious amounts of warming and spicy food, which is exactly what you’llfind at this new Chinese restaurant in the EastVillage, run by the owners of Old Town Hot Pot. This locale is decoratedmore tastefully, with whitewashed brick walls showcasing colorful paintings,red beams traversing the ceiling, and simple black tables. The menu, featuringmore than 150 items, is also much more expansive. Yet for the best Spicy Faceexperience, you’d be wise to get the Chengdu-stylehot pot. (Reserve ahead, because only a few tables accommodate thisdo-it-yourself dining experience.)
Pick your hot-pot base (go both spicy and chicken, $8each), then choose from a selection of proteins and veggies ($3 to $10 each),and dunk into the steaming broth until cooked. (Consider the billowing mist acomplimentary facial-with-meal.) In addition to the usual suspects (shrimp,squid, and tofu—all good; beef—adequate), you can order tripe, intestine, bloodcurd, and even luncheon meat, which happened to be the favorite add-in when Iate hot pot in Chengdu several years ago (still an acquired taste and texture,I admit). Feathery chrysanthemum leaves and lotus root slices prove good betsamong the roots and greens. Although not for the faint of palate, this is someof the most legit hot pot I’ve had in Manhattan.
If sticking to the regular menu, definitely heed thesuggested specials, marked with a pink dot, or opt for any of the “spicyand aromatic dishes.” Begin by immersing yourself in the hot and soursweet potato noodles ($6.50). Clear, slippery strands bathe in a bright redbroth accented with lots of chiles and just a twang of acidity. If you’re adumpling fan (and, seriously, who isn’t?), try the spicy Sichuan variety ($5.50), slicked with sauce, orthe slightly doughier steamed ones filled with preserved meat ($7).
Beginning to feel the burn? Take it up a notch with thedishes served “in spicy broth” (shrimp or fish, $21; beef or lamb,$19). Plump shrimp plus king oyster and enoki mushrooms swim in a bowl filledwith tongue-numbing soup and enough dried chiles to send you to the hospital ifyou actually ate them all at once. Equally good is the crunchy, dry-fried meishan beef ($14), dotted with peanuts, knobby crackers, and, naturally, anoverflowing handful of Sichuanpeppercorns and dried chiles. For a new twist on the pork-bun fad, try theversion with slices of steamed belly meat and knolls of preserved mustardgreens ($14).
Not everything succeeds here. Pass on all of theAmericanized food (i.e., General Tso’s chicken and friends). Several of thecold dishes, including the bitter cucumber with scallion ($7) and overly saltyChengdu pickledvegetables ($5), can be nixed, too. Other Sichuan classics were hit or miss. Ma potofu ($11) cries for more anesthetizing pepper flavor, while red cooking porkwith chestnut ($13) is nearly all fat and no meat. Village spicy chicken withfresh pepper ($15) promises more in name and its four-pepper warning than inactual excitement. Steamed whole fish with minced pickled pepper ($21) offers anew twist on the ubiquitous chile pepper theme, but after eating it and thenseeing my neighbor’s visually stunning broiled whole fish ($22), scattered withlotus root, cilantro, and dry-roasted chiles, I had immediate ordering envy.His was more likely to give me Spicy Face, I reckoned.