The tradition of hot pot has been spreading throughout Chinatown this winter, but it's always been on the menu at Lao Sze Chuan, at the edge of the Chinatown Square Mall.
"Because people come to sit down around the table; keep eating, talking, there was so much wonderful time," said Tony Hu, the owner of Lao Sze Chuan.
Your decisions begin with what you'd like to cook. Greens, like watercress, are a must; then proteins: adventure-seekers might like beef tripe or fish balls, but you could just as well choose calamari, shrimp or sweet potato noodles. Vegetarians will have a ball choosing among eggplant, wood ear mushrooms, broccoli, tofu and bok choy, but meat eaters should definitely go for the thinly-sliced beef or lamb, which is kept super-chilled, so it slices easily. Then, you need to decide on a broth.
"Most popular one is the half-and-half. In China, we call yin yang hot pot. Half spicy, half non-spicy," Hu said.
Dried shrimp, fresh ginger and scallion form the base of the mild broth, along with mushrooms, tomatoes and chicken broth. But heat-seekers will love the lethally-hot inferno of chili-paste oil, which is ladled in among leeks, dried chilies and tingly Szechuan peppercorns. Chicken broth thins it out to keep your esophagus from melting.
The broth is heated on a portable burner at your table, and three sauces are presented: Chinese barbeque, garlic and sesame. You simply toss items into the broth - in the case of the meat, swish or dunk it for about 20 seconds to cook it - then dunk the cooked ingredients in a sauce and enjoy. They even give you little baskets to help you fish things out of the boiling broth. Staff is on-hand to help, if you need it, but the participatory nature of hot pot, and the do-it-yourself aesthetic, is what makes it so much fun.
"A lot of people from Cantonese area they like seafood; from Szechuan, they love the beef. From Northern China, they love lamb," said Hu.
The great thing about hot pot is it's not just for Chinese New Year. They have it all year long at several Chinatown restaurants, but if you do bring the gang out this weekend, be sure to wish everyone a gung hay fat choy - that is, Happy New Year.
Lao Sze Chuan
2172 S. Archer Ave.
Other places for Hot Pot in Chinatown:
2143 S. Archer Ave
Tao Ran Ju
2002 S. Wentworth
2138 S. Archer Ave.
204 W. Cermak Rd.
228 W. Cermak Rd.
2002 S. Wentworth Ave.
Joy Yee Noodle Plus
2159 S. China Pl.
Saint's Alp Teahouse
2131 S. Archer Ave.
2101 S. China Pl.