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99 Favor Taste (285 Grand Street, 646-682-9122), recently opened on the edge of Chinatown, is a feastly orgy: trays heaped with raw meats and fishes, feathery greens and fungi, boiling and bubbling pots, and popping and sizzling meats top every table. Diners crowd around, heads-down, slurping noodles and soup with chopsticks, only looking up to tend the meat, cooking at arm’s distance away. And it’s all-you-can-eat.
It’s a big restaurant — two floors, thousands of square feet — and even at 6 p.m. on a weeknight, a mass of people crowd the door waiting for a table.
Eating here is a culinary journey. For the uninitiated (the Chinatown location is the establishment’s second; there’s another spot in Sunset Park, Brooklyn), the menu may be daunting. The board deals in sides, curries, and other dishes, but hot pots (think: Chinese fondue) are the highlight. You’ll find long lists of broths, meats, fish, and vegetables on the first page of the menu, but what to do with these isn’t totally unclear.
On the next page, we give a visual walk-through of the process, but first, a few tips for getting the most out of your visit.
Make a reservation
If you don’t, you’ll wait, and you’ll have to do it in the crowded entryway sans liquor; there’s no bar. If you flake on reserving, opt for communal seating. The tables are big enough that you won’t be squeezed in next to someone you don’t know, and there’s enough going on during the meal that it’s not awkward to share a table with another party. On a recent visit, our neighbors spoke Chinese and helped communicate with the waitress when we had questions.
Make sure you BYOB
There’s no booze on the menu here, and hot pots, especially the spicy ones, are most certainly drinking food. Also, unlike its Chinatown neighbors, 99 Favor Taste is an evening-length affair; which means you’ll be here for at least two hours. You’re going to want a beer or five.
This is a participatory dining experience
If you want to sit somewhere and have someone bring you food that’s ready to eat, look elsewhere. If you go for the barbecue add-on (and you absolutely should), you’ll cook it tabletop on a hot plate. Even if you don’t make that addition, though, you’ll boil your meat in the soup.
Go with a group
Everyone gets a hot pot, and everyone pays $18.99 ($25.99 for barbecue) for it, and once you commit to your choices, that’s what you get. So dining with a group means everyone can order something different, but you can get more refills of whatever’s most popular.
Or clothes you don’t care about. Even with passable chopstick skills, it’s a splattery affair, mostly because of the noodles, which are really long and floppy. They’ll bring you scissors to cut them with, but you will get splashed.
Up next: a pictorial walk-through of what to expect.
First, make your picks. Choose a broth base, a meat, some vegetables, and noodles. At our table, our neighbors opted for a wide spread of meats and every imaginable vegetable.
After you make your picks, you’ll go to this sauce station. Like the menu, the potential combinations are exponential, so don’t get too hung up on it. There are sweet and salty pastes, oils, liquids, and powders; peanut, soy, ginger, spicy, sesame, hoisin, bean, and on and on. We started with the familiar: soy sauce (a little), chile oil (a lot), sesame oil (a splash), garlic (some), bean paste (some), oyster sauce (a splash), and several other things we can’t recall now. And if you don’t like what you make, there’s really nothing preventing you from returning to the station for a new mix.
We went for a spicy broth and the kimchi broth (above), which is a little tangy, its kimchi still firm. If you opt for the spicy stuff, it’s not terribly hot if you have some tolerance for Szechuan heat, which is more tongue-numbing than painfully spicy.
For our inaugural mission, we kept the training wheels on and went for pork and beef, but more adventurous options include pork blood, beef tripe, chicken gizzards, and several fish; next time we’ll get squid and pig’s brain and fillets of fish and lamb.
Definitely go for the straw mushrooms; once your pot is boiling, they only need a quick dunk to soften, and their light, musky flavor is as delicate as their spindly stalks.
Your waiter will bring pots of broth and turn on your burner to heat them. If you go spicy (and we’d recommend it), BEWARE THE FLOATING THINGS THAT LOOK LIKE NUTS (top-left of the pot above). We chewed one, thinking it was a nut, and discovered that they’re actually evil, tongue-numbing death nuggets (and not in a pleasant, Szechuan way), whose anesthetic alkalinity will take over your soup. A strange, surprising sensation, and not really a nice one.
The waiter couldn’t tell us what they were in English, but the internet says they’re Siamese cardamom, or camphor seed. Their scent and flavor is fine at the outset (just don’t chew them) but intensifies as they bob and boil in the soup. So spoon them out early on.
Once everything’s in place, the table will quickly clutter. When your pot boils, add some vegetables — keeping in mind that turnips or cauliflower take longer to cook than, say, straw mushrooms or watercress — and your noodles and some meat, which cooks very quickly as it’s sliced super-thin.
If you’re barbecuing, throw some meat (and vegetables!) on the grill.
That’s more or less the gist.
Click to the next page for some wider shots of the space.