Friday, December 3, 2010

Uncle Liu's Hot Pot

Turkey, stuffing and cranberry salad are great, but they can get kind of old after eating them a few days in a row. As much as I love corn casserole, there is only so much that can be eaten at a time. There just comes a moment when you need a change of pace, and this year that change of pace came in the form Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot, a traditional Chinese restaurant located out in Falls Church.

Elliot originally heard about Uncle Liu’s while fact checking an article during his internship at the Washingtonian. There must have been something intriguing to him about cooking your own meat and veggies while out to dinner, because he came home and said that we should put it on our “to-try” list. Falls Church is not exactly around the corner, so when Abby called and said she wanted “an adventure,” Uncle Liu’s seemed to fit the bill.

Before we go any further, you probably want to know what the heck a hot pot is. It’s essentially the Chinese version of fondue, and really, who doesn’t like fondue? A portable propane burner is placed in the middle of the table and a large pot filled with broth is placed on it so it can be kept simmering throughout the meal. Ingredients are placed in the pot and cooked table side, then can be fished out with a spoon and eaten with traditional dipping sauces. Although it takes a bit of elbow grease to prepare your food it’s tons of fun and a nice change of scenery from your average “sit down and be served” restaurant or cooking. Not cleaning up in your own kitchen is pretty appealing, too.

Uncle Liu’s looks like your average Chinese restaurant with its high-backed chairs, Chinese symbols and abundant bottles of soy sauce, but it is so much more. Although the staff doesn’t speak that much English, they are able to point you in the right direction. Our waiter suggested that we do pot that allows you to have both a mild and spicy broth. The mild broth was perfectly flavored with chicken broth, bits of green onion and gogi berries. The other broth was deemed spicy by our waiter, but it was so much more than that. Elliot called it “pure unadulterated heat,” and I believe it was the perfect description considering I could barely feel my tongue after trying the tiniest bit of broccoli. After coming home, I found out that its name in Chinese can actually be translated as “numb and spicy.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Once you choose your broth, there's the matter of which ingredients to cook in it. The perishable choices, such as meats, seafood and dumplings, come out of the kitchen cold or even frozen, but they still cook relatively quickly in the boiling broth. We found that the thin slices of tender beef take mere seconds, while the dumplings took more than 5 minutes to cook all the way through and bubble to the surface. The lobster balls (which had the consistency of matzo balls) were good, but we had trouble dealing with the odd texture. The noodles were perfect in the broth and the vegetable cooked easily and were fantastic dipped in a mixture of garlic, peanut sauce and soy sauce.

Even though it posed various sets of challenges, Uncle Liu's provided a tremendous eating experience. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing, and thus were completely free to go crazy and experiment. This means it became an experience, and one we won't soon forget. After all, our mouths are still recovering from the third-degree burns.