From different directions and by different conveyances, four of us converged on the corner of 41st Avenue and Main Street in downtown Flushing as the rain streamed down one cold winter’s night. The object of our quest was a red-neon cauldron burning like a beacon on the second floor of a building on the northeast corner. We had to fly down the block and up a narrow staircase next to an Irish bar to get in, but when we arrived upstairs at Hot Pot City, Flushing’s newest and most ambitious purveyor of the communal meals associated with northern China, we stood with mouths agape.
Like Harry Potter and his friends exploring an obscure wing of Hogwarts, we passed through a bustling foyer, from where kitchens, convenience facilities, and barrooms radiated like tentacles. Diffuse and mysterious light issuing from colored Lucite panels led us down a narrow corridor, with public dining rooms on the left and private dining rooms on the right. Through portholes in the doors of the private chambers, we spied groups of laughing teens, chopsticks poised, dropping morsels into bubbling pots as if they were casting spells.
We took our place at one of the cramped tables in the last public dining room. Coated thickly in plastic (we soon found out why), the menu lolled on the side of the table. We caught our breaths when we saw it: 70 items were available—an astonishing number compared with the other hot-pot places in town. The price was amazing, too: $24.95 per person for unlimited cookables, including tax and tip, with the caveat that you must stop ordering after two hours, though you can keep boiling what you still have on hand. For an additional $3, Hot Pot City throws in unlimited dim sum and all the beer you can drink, which arrives in foamy pitchers and tastes like Bud. For a diner with a big appetite and a bottomless reservoir of culinary curiosity, this was one hell of a deal.
Not much English is spoken, but on our first visit we brought Irene, a friend who’d grown up in St. Louis and Shanghai and was well-qualified to help us decipher the arcane rules and regulations of the place. She taught us to concoct a dipping sauce from the two dozen reservoirs on a shelf in the foyer. Her recipe: equal volumes of satay sauce, soy sauce, toasted-sesame tahini, bird chilies in oil, and chopped cilantro.
When we returned to our table, the pot itself arrived. It’s divided in the middle to accommodate two broths, and is heated by means of a convection hot plate. You’ll have to ride the throttle on the hot plate to keep the liquids at an optimum temp. The broths include a spicy red one bobbing with capsicums, cardamoms, and Sichuan peppercorns; and a bland white one featuring soy milk and miniature wrinkly dates called jujubes. For an additional $5.90, you can replace either from a list that includes “old duck soup,” edible fungus (the only vegetarian choice), ham-and-turtle soup (poor turtle!), fish-head soup, and miso.
In the course of two meals on successive weekends, we managed to sample half of the 70 choices. Our favorites were lamb and pork, which came in thin frozen sheets; crunchy lotus root; “baby green” (bok choy); head-on shrimp; udon noodles; “golden mushrooms” (enoki); rubbery rice cakes; thin-sliced taro root; and “tempura,” which turned out to be breaded planks of a fishlike substance that cooked fast and became intriguingly wobbly. Our least-favorites were tomato, omasum (deathly white tripe), and “pork in gluten”—like a meatball nestled in a brown raincloud.
When one long plate of fixin’s is finished, pick more ingredients, and the eager staff will heap the platter again. It’s like Mickey with the brooms in
Fantasia. We had selected the dim sum option, too, so plates of it arrived at intervals in response to our orders. “Steamed little” are Shanghai soup dumplings, nicely rendered, but the “panfried little soup dumplings” are woody and flavorless. Skip the chicken wings, which taste like they’ve been in the freezer since Dumbledore died. If you love desserts, your only option is “Eight treasure rice,” which is sweet and sticky.
Wildly swinging chopsticks and ladle, we rapidly dumped, cooked, dipped, and downed hundreds of morsels. At the end of both meals, sticky spatters coated the table and our clothes and dribbled in little rivulets down our chins—making Hot Pot City one of the messiest, and tastiest, meals we’d eaten in a long time.