The question isn't whether to order a Chongqing hot pot at North Miami Beach's year-old CY Chinese Restaurant. You must.
No, the real quandary is what you will ask for inside it. Chef and owner Yang Xian Guang suggests beef tripe, gelatinous pork blood cakes, and fat-ribboned slices of lamb, along with a few slices of pearly lotus root and whatever green vegetables he has on hand. "But the pig intestine is the best," he says through an employee who translates. "After a little while in the broth, it becomes crisp. It's amazing."
CY Chinese is perhaps the only Miami purveyor of cauldrons of this beloved mixture, which is spiked with a panoply of chilies and spices and can be used to cook, well, almost whatever you please.
The history of the hot pot stretches back nearly a millennium to the Mongolian steppe, where nomads would simmer whatever varieties of meat they had on hand in a communal vessel filled with a simple broth. As centuries passed, hot pots spread across Asia. Some versions offered pungent broths flavored with wild herbs and mushrooms. Others include pickled vegetables, which create a sour broth that pairs well with offal and fatty meats. It is not that different from Japan's shabu-shabu, where paper-thin slices of meat and a rainbow of vegetables are swished through a scalding broth fortified with seaweed. (You can try this one at Kevin Cory's N by Naoe on Brickell Key.)
The Chongqing hot pot became arguably the most popular of these beginning around the 16th Century. This might have something to do with its color: the crimson-hued infusion is littered with glistening, candy-apple-hued chilies and flecked with fistfuls of Sichuan peppercorn that fill your mouth with a citrusy twang before numbing it like a fat syringe of lidocaine.
At CY Chinese, the broth begins with a heroic dose of rendered beef fat. "This is the most important thing," Yang says. "It's what creates the savory smell of the hot pot, which is what all Chinese look for when they judge them." When he's not in the kitchen, Yang paces the dining room in a tight black athletic shirt. He's short, with a narrow frame and a face topped by a wide Mohawk of salt-and-pepper hair. He learned to cook as a child growing up in Chongqing, where for breakfast he'd help his family pull noodles and slice fatty pieces of beef brisket into a tawny broth. Later he would monitor heaps of pork as they braised into tender slabs. Then he'd slice up vegetables and heat a wok to stir-fry pork and chili-laced heaps of mapo tofu.
But, he says, it was the days his family would make hot pots, often during the dead of winter, that were most exciting. The recipes include three kinds of chilies, a heap of those Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, garlic, ginger, star anise, fermented black beans, and a litany of secrets he refuses to share. A simple chicken broth, made by simmering carcasses with ginger and garlic for three hours, is poured on top just before it's sent out to the dining room, where wide tables are lined with plastic covers. There, the pot is set on top of a portable burner spitting blue flames. While it warms, there's time to drink a beer. You can also whet your palate with a plate of pickled cucumbers sprinkled with chilies and sesame oil, or try a bowl of the Sichuan noodles called dan dan mein tossed with fermented black beans, crushed peanuts, and fried chili loops.
Once the pot has reached a rolling boil, the main show begins. First comes a pink knot of soy-marinated pork followed by fatty beef with so much ribboning it could be mistaken for a piece of bacon. If you're feeling adventuresome, the pork blood cake is the best option. Its closest analog is Spain's rice-studded morcilla. A dip in the gurgling broth leeches out any hint of the blood's iron and replaces it with a ginger-and-chili spice.
The thumb-size quail eggs follow a similar pattern. After a short bath, they become stained red and infused with the broth's savory heat. So too do the slices of lotus roots that, when split open, look like ringed pinwheels. Don't leave them too long, lest they decay like an overcooked potato. Wood ear mushrooms — inky ruffles that grow on tree bark — do double duty in the hot pot; they help intensify the broth's flavor while also serving as an ideal partner for every bit of beef, pork, or shrimp ball you pop into your mouth.
There is some debate, however, about how a hot pot should be run. There are public hot pot restaurants in Chongqing that feature massive pots lined with metal dividers splitting the broth into sections for each individual. Although CY doesn't offer such an option, Yang says it's the best one. It even allows ingredients such as fish and delicate, leafy greens to be cooked separately. "That way, you get the best flavor," he adds.
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SHOW ME HOW
The main challenge when it comes to sitting down at CY is designating who will oversee the cooking. If you're lucky, someone else will worry about replenishing the pot with meat, mushrooms, and perhaps mustard greens. That way, there's nothing to focus on other than fishing out the best pieces of meat while avoiding those searing chilies.
CY Chinese Restaurant
1242 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach; 305-947-3838; cychineserestaurant.com. Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Chongqing spicy pot $14.95
Sliced pork $6.95
Sliced fatty beef $8.95
Pork blood cake $7.95
Shrimp ball $7.95
Quail egg $5.95
Sliced lotus root $5.95
Dan dan mein $5.95
Szechuan cucumber $6.25