If a recent study published in Science magazine is to be believed, then dining at Beijing Hot Pot should produce a sense of ease, kindness, and generosity of spirit. The study, conducted by Lawrence Williams from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder, suggests that when people experience physical sensations of warmth, they are more likely to take a positive view of the world around them. The Chinese tradition of hot pot is nothing if not warm—the meal centers around a steaming pot of broth—and so much the better in that it's meant to be shared.
Next door to Fubonn on SE 82nd, but tucked away in an Asian strip mall reminiscent of a box canyon, Beijing Hot Pot feels like a secret. A disorienting rush of sensations waits just inside the door; the sweet smell of soy and bean paste overwhelms the nose while the owners graciously rush to greet you.
The interior is cozy, even when empty; a largely white walled dining room is packed with sturdy tables—each with an inset enameled soup pot—surrounded by comfortable chairs with deep red covers.
It's easy to be transported at Beijing Hot Pot. As the clientele of the surrounding businesses come and go and the constant chatter of Chinese drifts from the kitchen, you can almost imagine yourself in some mythic Beijing neighborhood.
For those uninitiated to hot pot, the meal may be a tad challenging. Yes, the staff is helpful, but never the less; hot pot is often an adventurous meal. Hot pot begins with broth. At Beijing Hot Pot, the chicken broth base can be seasoned with a hot mélange of chili or left relatively plain, save for a slice of ginger and a few other gentle spices. The broth arrives at the table via an enormous steaming kettle and is tipped carefully into the tabletop pot. Diners then choose from an à la carte menu of meats, vegetables, dumplings, or noodles, which they will cook in the simmering broth.
This is where things get interesting. While there are a variety of pedestrian "ingredients" such as steak, chicken, fish, and a variety of vegetables, there are also more esoteric choices: cuttlefish, tripe, Spam, and golden needle mushrooms, to name a few.
The trick is finding out how long to cook your selections. For instance, I found that cuttlefish required just a quick dunk to keep them from becoming too chewy (I never stopped marveling about how their little tentacles curled up into little, whitish-gray flowers), while tripe could stay in a bit longer to soak up the flavor of the broth, and give it that interesting sausage-casing snap.
A hot pot meal, like life, is entirely what you make of it. You may find thin slices of rib eye and hand-rolled pork dumplings—plumped in the bubbling broth—are a perfect combination. Or, you may find that you'd rather pair noodles with bits of chicken and mushrooms.
This is why hot pot is ideal for groups. More eaters mean more choices, and plenty to share. As the meal progresses, the flavor of the broth develops and changes according to what's been blanched or boiled—and all the while, dining companions are bathed in warmth and steam. Could the end flavor at Beijing Hot Pot be happiness? Depends on what you put into it.