Editors' pick

Uncle Liu's Hot Pot

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Hot, and in more ways than one Uncle Liu's showcases popular pots
By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, July 18, 2010

When I don't feel like cooking, I go out to eat.

When I do feel like cooking but want someone else to do the prep work and cleanup, my new routine is to go to Uncle Liu's Hot Pot in Falls Church.

At Uncle Liu's, friends and I can cook our dinner at the table, dunking a variety of meats, seafood, tofu, vegetables and noodles in a big bowl of broth simmering on a portable tabletop burner. Each of us can also customize individual bowls of sauce in which to dip the cooked ingredients. It's healthful, delicious and a fun way to share the cooking chores.

And if you are unsure what to order or look as if you're fumbling around with the chopsticks once the broth is delivered, the restaurant's helpful and amazingly patient staff is happy to get you started. (On our first visit, our saintlike waitress ended up preparing half of the dinner for us, worried that we'd overdo the meat or undercook the dumplings.)

Uncle Liu's was opened in March by Liu Chaosheng, owner of Hong Kong Palace in Seven Corners, who wanted to re-create the hot pot restaurants popular in his native Sichuan province. His new venture is tucked into a shopping center between the gigantic Great Wall Asian supermarket and a large Gold's Gym. It draws a diverse clientele for its 40-item lunch buffet and lots of multi-generational Chinese families for the hot pots at dinner.

Although restaurants serving Chinese hot pot are a rarity in this area, this style of eating has existed in Asia for more than 1,000 years. Some say it started in Mongolia and spread to China; others claim it began in China's Sichuan province with a chili-laden broth known for its incendiary spiciness. No matter; today nearly every region of China has its own style of hot pot.

Fans of Liu's Hong Kong Palace, which, name aside, focuses on Sichuan cuisine, will recognize some of the dishes on the regular menu at Uncle Liu's. There's also a whiteboard out front on which specials are written in Chinese. If you want to try the hot pot, let the hosts know as you arrive; they'll steer you to the larger tables that can accommodate the burners and will give you the separate hot pot menu.

The setup is fairly simple: You have your choice of five basic kinds of broth bowls. The most popular is a mild, opaque chicken-based broth simmered with gogi berries and chunks of tomato. There's also a mushroom-based broth; the traditional oily, spicy Sichuan broth full of chilies and peppercorns; a split bowl that can handle half of one kind of broth and half of another; and an expensive fish broth that, our waitress explained, is made to order using one of the live tilapia kept in a tank at the back of the restaurant.

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 frozen but still cook quickly. The paper-thin, bright red slices of lamb and tender beef take seconds. The thin slices of flounder and chicken require maybe two minutes at most; same with delicacies such as shrimp and squid. The vegetable- and meat-filled dumplings are done as soon as they bob to the surface of the bubbling broth; both kinds are delicious, but the tiny meat ones are particularly addictive.

Fish balls, made of mild, pearly-white ground fish that take on the consistency of hard-boiled egg white when cooked, were popular with little kids sitting near us. One mom impaled one on a chopstick for her son, who nibbled at it. I preferred the more richly flavored lobster balls. Unimpaled.

It would be easy to make a meal just of the vegetable offerings. We loved the earthy wood ear and delicate enoki mushrooms, and the crunchy lotus root. We also worked our way through heaping plates of fresh spinach, three kinds of cabbage and tender green bean leaves. We were mystified by the "potato chips" listed on the menu; they turned out to be potato chunks: a bit ho-hum and too thick to cook quickly.

The server brings extra-long chopsticks that, for food-safety reasons, are used to handle only the raw ingredients. Once the items are cooked, you can scoop them out of the broth with a ladle (or your own chopsticks, if the group's not picky) and place them on your plate. Use your chopsticks to dip the cooked items into the sauce you've concocted from condiments at the sauce station. A mix of sesame or chili oil, soy sauce, garlic, a bit of rice vinegar and scallions is nice. Eat it with some of the steamed or fried rice that comes with the meal.

If you order noodles for your broth, wait until all of the vegetables and protein bits are cooked and eaten, leaving the broth richly seasoned. Then add the noodles, which cook for a few minutes, soaking up all of that heady flavor. If you're too full to finish, you can ask for a plastic container to take the soup home in. It'll be even better the next day.

During two of our visits, we ordered the mild broth because, I admit, I have a wimpy palate. But on the third visit, we went half and half: one side mild, the other spicy.

There's a reason the Sichuan-style broth is called mala, meaning "numb and spicy." The longer the broth cooks, the spicier it gets, and the more numb your lips and tongue (and maybe your brain) become. By the end of the meal, one friend's face was as red as a sunburn, and he kept mopping his forehead and saying, "This stuff is awesome." I didn't have much of the broth, and it took two days for my tongue to recover.

Friends have told me that that isn't even close to the level of heat that can be found in a Sichuan hot pot in China.

All I can say is, you've been warned.

Candy Sagon is a former writer for The Post's Food section. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.