Off The Beaten Path: Sichuan Hot Pot
With how diverse Houston is and how many options Houstonians have when it comes to dining out, there are countless opportunities to broaden one’s culinary horizons. Houston Food Finder was invited to try Xiaolongkan, a restaurant at 9600 Bellaire in Asiatown that specializes in Sichuan-style hot pot.
Sichuanese food is multifaceted, but most famously known for its namesake peppercorns that cause a unique, mouth-numbing sensation. However, the city of Chengdu, located in the Sichuan province, is known for its hot pot, or the use of boiling-hot soups to quickly cook food. Much like peeling crawfish or grilling at a Korean barbecue, hot pot is best when it’s a group activity. It is as much about the communal experience as it is the food.
Xiaolongkan has gone to great lengths to create a completely immersive atmosphere. The dining room resembles a movie scene, with thick, wooden support beams, vibrant red curtains, murals and glowing paper lanterns that lend a golden tint to the room. Guests are situated at tables with burners embedded in the center that are just deep enough to hold the large, bowl-shaped pots in place. The pots are divided to hold between one and three soup bases. There are over 50 meat, seafood, vegetable and noodle choices to cook in the hot broths.
Great customer service has not been necessarily been a tradition in the area, but the staff at Xiaolongkan does a great job adding to the ever-improving reputation. To take any uncertainty out of the process, the servers at Xiaolongkan are adept at giving suggestions and advice, and the website even has suggested cook times for each of the ingredients available. The sheer variety of dishes makes it a perfect restaurant for large groups of people with differing tastes or those who want to try an assortment of foods.
Most of the flavor in each bite depends on which soup you choose to cook it in. We picked three flavors, starting with the classic beef tallow spicy, loaded with chili, scallion, an intimidating amount of whole red chili peppers and peppercorns. The staff warned that the longer the ingredients were left in the spicy broth, the more intense the heat would become, and they were not wrong. The other options we chose were a sharply acidic tomato soup with mushrooms and green onions and a light, silky pork bone broth, neither of which are spicy. The restaurant also offers a vegetable-based, spicy soup base. It should be noted that when ordering for dine-in, guests can select between various levels of heat in the spicy broths.
Part of enjoying a hot pot is the sheer number of ingredient choices. The restaurant has numerous options for carnivores, many of which are also halal-friendly. Pork options are plentiful at Xiaolongkan including two types of sausage, pork belly, marinated pork, meatballs, marinated pork ribs and slices of spam. Shoulder and leg of lamb are available. Guests can also order spicy marinated beef, ribeye, and mini-skewers called toothpick beef.
Moving from land to sea, choices include fresh shrimp, as well as shrimp paste and dumplings, fish filet, mussels and a combination platter featuring fresh shrimp, fish balls, stone crab claws and a lobster tail.
The ability to try new dishes that may be unfamiliar to some guests is one of Xiaolongkan’s greatest strengths. The menu has more than a dozen items that are not frequently seen in restaurants. Duck feet (“paws” on the menu), and cow tongue are not entirely unheard of, but still a new experience for many. Things get more adventurous with offerings such as pork brains, intestines, blood and a personal favorite, kidneys, which are coated in egg yolk and plump up while submerged in the broth. Both traditional cow tripe and the thinner louver are available, as well as aorta. Diners are also able to order goose intestines and whole bullfrog. With the help of the staff, and a relatively low cost per plate that averages less than ten dollars, Xiaolongkan makes these uncommon meat options accessible to diners willing to go off the beaten path.
While meat seems like the star of the show, Xiaolongkan offers much more than that. Alternative proteins include dried, frozen and marinated tofu and both chicken and quail eggs.
The vegetable options are even more numerous than the meat and include sliced radish, winter melon, Chinese yam and potato, available in thick or thin cuts. There’s also green and Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, lotus root, as well as several others. Shiitake, enoki, tremella and wood ear (listed as “black fungus”) mushrooms are also available on the menu. There is no shortage of noodles or bread either, with purple potato vermicelli, udon, ramen, traditional vermicelli and fried bread sticks all on offer.
To enhance the experience even more, there is a build-your-own sauce and snack bar, as well as a handful of non-hot pot side dishes, including two types of fried rice, fried lotus root cakes and hunks of deep-fried pork.
Xiaolongkan’s hours are Monday through Thursday from noon to 9:30, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.