Midway through our meal at Hot Kitchen, my friends and I looked at each other and grinned. Our cheeks flushed a rosy pink as our eyes began to smart. Beads of perspiration formed at our temples, matting hair to scalps. “Yep,” I said. “We officially have Spicy Face.”
Such a pleasant (though homely) condition occurs when eating copious amounts of warming and spicy food, which is exactly what you’ll find at this new Chinese restaurant in the East Village, run by the owners of Old Town Hot Pot. This locale is decorated more tastefully, with whitewashed brick walls showcasing colorful paintings, red beams traversing the ceiling, and simple black tables. The menu, featuring more than 150 items, is also much more expansive. Yet for the best Spicy Face experience, you’d be wise to get the Chengdu-style hot pot. (Reserve ahead, because only a few tables accommodate this do-it-yourself dining experience.)
Pick your hot-pot base (go both spicy and chicken, $8 each), 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 a complimentary facial-with-meal.) In addition to the usual suspects (shrimp, squid, and tofu—all good; beef—adequate), you can order tripe, intestine, blood curd, and even luncheon meat, which happened to be the favorite add-in when I ate hot pot in Chengdu several years ago (still an acquired taste and texture, I admit). Feathery chrysanthemum leaves and lotus root slices prove good bets among the roots and greens. Although not for the faint of palate, this is some of the most legit hot pot I’ve had in Manhattan.
If sticking to the regular menu, definitely heed the suggested specials, marked with a pink dot, or opt for any of the “spicy and aromatic dishes.” Begin by immersing yourself in the hot and sour sweet potato noodles ($6.50). Clear, slippery strands bathe in a bright red broth accented with lots of chiles and just a twang of acidity. If you’re a dumpling fan (and, seriously, who isn’t?), try the spicy Sichuan variety ($5.50), slicked with sauce, or the slightly doughier steamed ones filled with preserved meat ($7).
Beginning to feel the burn? Take it up a notch with the dishes served “in spicy broth” (shrimp or fish, $21; beef or lamb, $19). Plump shrimp plus king oyster and enoki mushrooms swim in a bowl filled with tongue-numbing soup and enough dried chiles to send you to the hospital if you actually ate them all at once. Equally good is the crunchy, dry-fried mei shan beef ($14), dotted with peanuts, knobby crackers, and, naturally, an overflowing handful of Sichuan peppercorns and dried chiles. For a new twist on the pork-bun fad, try the version with slices of steamed belly meat and knolls of preserved mustard greens ($14).
Not everything succeeds here. Pass on all of the Americanized food (i.e., General Tso’s chicken and friends). Several of the cold dishes, including the bitter cucumber with scallion ($7) and overly salty Chengdu pickled vegetables ($5), can be nixed, too. Other Sichuan classics were hit or miss. Ma po tofu ($11) cries for more anesthetizing pepper flavor, while red cooking pork with chestnut ($13) is nearly all fat and no meat. Village spicy chicken with fresh pepper ($15) promises more in name and its four-pepper warning than in actual excitement. Steamed whole fish with minced pickled pepper ($21) offers a new twist on the ubiquitous chile pepper theme, but after eating it and then seeing my neighbor’s visually stunning broiled whole fish ($22), scattered with lotus root, cilantro, and dry-roasted chiles, I had immediate ordering envy. His was more likely to give me Spicy Face, I reckoned.