I never really liked hot pot. A blasphemous statement, I know, coming from any self-respecting Asian. So, like any self-respecting half-Asian (my mother is Taiwanese American, my dad is French), I never admitted it. I showed up to any and all hot pot outings.
There were the hot pot gatherings of my youth, at Chinese restaurants tucked away in Paris’ 9ème arrondissement. There was the shabu shabu place my Boston college friends swore by, and all of the hottest Chongqing-style imports I tested out with delighted expats in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I’m pretty sure every family trip we took to Taiwan involved a distant relative bringing us to their favorite local spot, from Taipei to Tainan. Still, I was not convinced.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certain aspects of hot pot I love — the communal gathering, the DIY cooking, the fanfare of it all. But in the Asian world of shared family-style feasts, hot pot scores very low on my list. I’ll take baskets upon baskets of dim sum, a whole suckling pig, and the Alaskan king crab cooked three ways, anytime.
But that very much changed this fall. See, I fell in love with hot pot in the middle of the pandemic. The pandemic that, at its onset, resulted in the ugly and racist boycott of Chinatowns across the world. The pandemic that ravaged the hospitality industry. And the pandemic that wholly prevents the kind of group gathering hot pot so clearly beckons. So, how did this happen?
New York City was riding off a summer high of outdoor dining, the warm weather injecting a jolt of life in a city that was the world’s COVID-19 epicenter back in March 2020. As New York reopened in phases over the spring and summer, a sunny day was like a precious slice of forgotten normalcy, with locals of every borough racing to the nearest park or patio. These prized sun-drenched days lasted well into the fall.
But this fateful October night was the first day it felt frisky in the city. It was past 9 p.m. in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and my go-to strip of Mott Street restaurants had already called it a night. My holy trinity of Ping’s, Wo Hop, and Shanghai 21 were closing up; even the usually bumping Doyers Street was eerily quiet. The only place still humming was a restaurant “as seen in the Daily News,” a standing sidewalk sign off Mott not inconspicuously pointed out: Sichuan Hot Pot.
Cozily nestled on an emptied out Pell Street, Sichuan Hot Pot has the kind of outdoor setup that spills onto the street, almost like a scene straight out of Hong Kong: tables set up right on the narrow concrete road, cars be damned (and not a problem, thanks to New York’s Open Streets program); portable gas burners throning at the center of each, with patrons tossing an array of edible goods into the simmering broth. All to the beat of cheekily dubbed pop hits from the past five years — to my knowledge, that was most definitely not Sia singing “Chandelier.”
It was chilly and I was too hungry not to take hot pot on. Oh well, last resort, I thought. We were seated on the sidewalk, which’d been transformed into a covered wooden deck. Our waiter handed us a pencil and a sheet of paper with a roll call of broth, meat, vegetables, and seafood options to choose from. Tick what you want.
“What do you and your family usually get?” I asked.
Ensued a back-and-forth of our hot pot best of.
Spicy house special broth. Check.
Fish balls. Check.
Pork belly. Check.
Enoki mushrooms. Check.
Taiwanese sausage. Check.
Potato slices (“Potato slices?!” “You’ve never had them?!”) Check.
Beef tendon. Check.
And so on.
We handed in our ticked off sheet and were given in return our very own portable butane burner, mesh serving spoons, and ramekins full of dipping sauces. A waiter returned moments later with our pot and a kettle with a long thin spout from which the spicy broth poured in an elegant, almost ceremonious way. The plates started lining up, and the strategic dipping and dunking began.
By the end of the meal, I had come to my epiphany: Outdoors hot pot is the ultimate hot pot.
Never had I eaten hot pot in such a frenzied, happy way. Each piece of still-pink lamb, broth-soaked tofu, and juicy tendon was a balm against the cold — my fingers kept snug by the emanating heat, with the slight burn from the spicy broth warming me at my core. I filled and refilled plates, and fished out fish balls from the depths of the broth.
I went back to Sichuan Hot Pot exactly one week later, preaching the outdoors hot pot gospel to anyone who would listen.
Here’s the thing: I believe hot pot is best eaten outdoors and when it’s cold. For one, it provides the kind of gratifying nourishment similar to that of a boozy, cheesy fondue. In the European bread-and-cheese version, you’re blubbering up for skiing and the snow. With outdoor hot pot, you’re going up against winter.
And in a year that tested the very definition of hospitality, outdoors hot pot on Pell Street reminded me of something that’s been lost to the pandemic: the sheer excitement of dining out. Because despite the lack of pomp and circumstance of dazzling service, or the buzzy energy of a packed dining room, outdoors hot pot is still an event, and in these times, that’s a rarity. A reminder of what dining in New York can still be.
Is it ironic that I fell in love with hot pot during the pandemic? Maybe. But when the first snow hits New York, you’ll know where to find me. Happily eating hot pot outdoors, with my immediate household of two.
Sichuan Hot Pot is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; (212) 267-8886 or website. 34 Pell Street, New York.
- SHABU TATSU // Little Tokyo’s preeminent shabu shabu go-to, since 1991. 216 East 10th Street, Manhattan.
- SICHUAN HOT POT // The game-changing hot pot in Manhattan's Chinatown. 34 Pell Street, Manhattan
- 886 // The East Village’s rollicking ode to modern Taiwanese fare, hot pot included. 26 St. Marks Place, Manhattan
- LAOJIE // All you can eat hot pot with a proper sauce station, and artist Stephanie Shih’s favorite in Sunset Park. 811 53rd Street, Brooklyn.