By my quick count, a friend and I have ordered 24 separate items to dunk into our broths, including scallops, shrimp, octopus, bacon, fatty brisket, prime rib, lotus root and many other glistening morsels. I figure if I’m going to bust my budget at Riverside Hotpot Cuisine in Gaithersburg, I’m going to do it in operatic style.
“We went a little overboard,” I tell our waiter, waiting for some sign of frustration, or at least resignation. Anything that might signal his impatience at my classically American display of self-indulgence. I suspect he already thinks I have a Hummer idling outside in a handicapped space, two eight-point bucks strapped to the roof, the combination dripping blood and motor oil all over his parking lot.
“It’s fine,” he responds, and he means it. We’ve been absolved. We’re free to enjoy our personalized raw bar of meat, seafood and vegetables without a lick of staff disdain. I must confess: It’s a relief.
Opened in January, Riverside Hotpot is the first U.S. outlet of a Chongqing-based chain with 22 locations in China. The Gaithersburg shop, a minimalist-functional space carved into a strip center, peddles a handful of clay pots for a quick-and-easy lunch, but I focused on its marquee offering: Chinese huo guo, or fire pot, and its many variations, including mala huo guo, the tongue-numbing, nasal-clearing, throat-searing hot pot native to Chongqing.
Influenced by Mongolian cooking (were these nomads the Rene Redzepis of their day, transforming food culture wherever they went?), hot pots are the original DIY cuisine. The restaurant supplies the broth, the raw (or frozen) ingredients, the utensils and the space; you do everything else. It’s sort of like Mongolian barbecue: There are no rules, and your meal is only as good as the available ingredients and your ability to mix and match them with a dipping sauce (or three) of your own design. Make sure to wear a shirt and pants you can sacrifice to the cause; broths burble and spit, dipping sauces drip and strips of hot juicy beef fall from your chopsticks.
In this sense, a hot pot restaurant is the GWAR show of dining. You will get splattered.
Riverside offers two all-you-can-eat hot pots: one for $18.99, a deal that makes the $20 Diner’s heart beat faster, and another for $23.99, which makes the $20 Diner’s editor’s heart grow cold. What does the extra five spot get you? A few more vegetables (such as black fungus, also known as cloud ear mushroom, a delightfully crunchy button of jellylike fungus), two seafood selections (shrimp and scallops, both pristine and beautifully cleaned) and a small line of ground-protein-and-vegetable mixtures (called “hua”) that you form into meatballs and cook in the broth. The latter option, particularly the fragrant beef-and-coriander hua, is alone worth the additional fiver.
By its very nature, hot-pot dining is communal, designed to draw diners together over a shared broth, with all the unavoidable turf wars over simmering ingredients and pot space. It’s an experience not for the timid. But Riverside eliminates the tabletop warfare by offering individual hot pots, each filled with your choice of broth, whether seafood, mushroom, Chongqing spicy, vegetable, curry or, curiously, “tomato and brisket.”
The last broth gives you a sense of what’s been lost — or gained — in Riverside’s trip across the ocean. Some of the more exotic Chinese ingredients didn’t make the journey, while the Chongqing spicy broth, bubbling away with Sichuan peppercorns and what looks like fermented black beans, leans toward the lower end of the Scoville scale, unless you order it “extra spicy.” And that tomato and brisket broth? Manager Tina Zhang says it was developed for Riverside’s American debut because “people here already accept Italian food.”
If any of this scares you away from Riverside, it shouldn’t. The same operation that’s clever enough to customize its concept for U.S. diners also is smart enough to feed them well. Whatever you order off the checklist — even 24 meats and vegetables! — it all arrives at once, loaded into bowls or onto serving trays or even carefully segregated on a party platter. The quality of the ingredients is far higher than I expected, down to the rolls of fatty brisket, which are streaked with buttery fat. The primary dud is the side of Chinese-style pancakes, these dry and brittle bites without much flavor tucked into their fried folds. I ordered the dish twice just to make sure the first version wasn’t a mistake.
There are, to me, several keys to a superior hot-pot experience: One, don’t simmer your food to death, save for dense vegetables like lotus root (which take on a roasted chestnut-like texture when you let them luxuriate in the broth for minutes on end). Two, no matter how creative you think you are when mixing dipping sauces, always prepare a simple, soy-based backup; some of your concoctions will no doubt overwhelm more delicate bites such as scallops and flounder. Third, mild broths work better than full-bodied ones like the curry or Chongqing; the milder ones don’t dominate the natural flavor of your ingredients, and, even better, they pick up flavor as the meal progresses.
Which reminds me: Make sure to order noodles for your hot pot. Once done cooking your dinner, you’ll want to ladle some of that rich, aromatic broth into a bowl, add a handful of noodles and enjoy a final course of Chinese soup. Or, I guess, Italian soup.
820 Muddy Branch Road, Gaithersburg. 301-330-8886.
Hours:Starting Oct. 1: Monday-Friday noon to 3 p.m.; Monday-Thursday 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday 5 to midnight; Saturday noon to midnight; Sunday noon to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Shady Grove, with a 3.7-mile trip to the restaurant.
Hot pot prices: $18.99-$23.99 for adults; $9.99-$13.99 for children. Starting on Oct. 1, the $23.99 menu drops to $16.99 after 9 p.m. daily.