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L.A.'s Best Hot Spots For Hot Pot

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Growing up a second generation Korean-American kid in suburban San Fernando Valley I found myself, at a young age, with little love for the percolating magmatic stews my parents would share and seemingly subsist upon. I was confused by the perpetual battle between joy and agony playing across my parents' furrowed brows each meal (eventually realizing these diametrically opposing emotions define the Korean spirit), spoons dipping into their fiery cauldron with a ditch digger's diligence, all the while punctuated with intermittent serpentine inhalations which made the meal that more suspicious.

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My parents' sweat-marked faces -- ignited by both seasoning and temperature -- seemed to promise either eternal damnation or the gastronomic equivalent of stepping on a Lego piece on a 101 degree day ... and yet they somehow invited it by the spoonful, silently enjoying what seemed like punishment served from a boiling bowl."¨"¨In any case, I wanted no part of it, resigned to cleanse my kimchi clean of its identity, dilute my rice in ice water, and count down the days till "hamburger steak night." No mystery pots for me.

Fortunately, I've come to appreciate the Korean hot pots known as jjigae as an adult (though never with the fire and brimstone fervor as my parents), alongside many more dishes native to my culture I dismissed during those Happy Meal brainwashed years. But maybe more so than just jjigae, as I've gotten older, a deep affinity for the fountainhead of meals cooked in a bowl has simmered to a boil today. I love hot pot.

The origins of the hot pot is one which can inflame heady debate. Some purport Mongol horsemen -- between pillaging kingdoms here and there -- were the first to flip their shields over into makeshift pots to simmer soup and sear meat. Others, while agreeing the hot pot pedigree is undoubtedly Chinese, dissent over whether it was the Northerners or those in the south-central Sichuan province of China who first got hot over the pot.

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There's stronger consensus it was during the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644 to 1912) that hot pot (huo guo ?�) as it is now colloquially known, established itself a Chinese staple, a dinner where individual ingredients combined in Confucian harmony could stretch sometimes paltry amounts of meat into hearty suppers with the addition of adding uncooked vegetables, noodles, fungus, roots, and eggs, to foment within an amalgamation of broth, roots, nuts, and spices specific to the region.

And from there, like many things Chinese, in no time the idea spread across much of Asia, morphing into shabu shabu, sukiyaki, yao hon, tom yum, and jjigae (and gamjatang if you're not a stickler for dipping as an essential requirement). "¨"¨Today the hot pot is conspicuous excess set to boil, with shrimp and fish balls, hand pulled noodles, fresh dumplings, thinly sliced meats, corn on the cob, Spam slices, chrysanthemum leaves, shellfish, fish filets, and fermented tofu all optional upgrades available to add into the boiling mix, all designed to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace and partnered with a selection of dipping sauces. Hot pot is literally what you make it."¨"¨ Here are a few categories and regional hot pots found across Southern California to get started.

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Mongolian style: before you move onto the likes of the tongue-on-battery seasoned Sichuan hot pot concoctions at other establishments, Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot's half and half hot pot -- with one side seasoned with jujubes, goji berries, garlic, cardamom pods, and vegetables and the other spiked with mala chili oil and lip-tingling Sichuan green peppercorns -- makes for a solid introduction to the communal "let's order everything" experience of eating hot pot. Vegetarians and vegans can even get by here, with a request for a special broth.
Where: Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
140 W Valley Blvd #213
San Gabriel, CA
What: Half & Half Hot Pot with House Meatball Platter and Shrimp Balls

"¨"¨"¨Cantonese style: Those averse to spicy food would do well starting off with the Cantonese variety of hot pot, for its broth is usually devoid of chili pepper-laden flotsam ready to lay wreck to your taste buds and nostrils. A delicate flavored broth joined by bean curds, turnips, greens, and beef can still be surprisingly satisfying in its simplicity.
Where: Fortune Gourmet Kitchen
727 N Broadway, Ste 215
Los Angeles, CA 90012
What: Cantonese Style Beef Stew with White Turnip Hot Pot or Stuffed Bean Curd With Vegetable Hot Pot

Chongqing fish head hot pot: Like many great peasant soups and stews, Chongqing's fish head hot pots were first concocted by poor Yangtze River boatmen, throwing in all bits of the day's catch in with a heavily oiled, peppery melange of produce, the results as murky as the waters they'd navigate. The version at New Chong Qing stays true to its origins with a hot pot that greets diners with a serious stare with every stir.
Where: New Chong Qing
120 N San Gabriel Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91775
What: House Special Fish Hot Pot

Dry style: As the name makes obvious, dry pot is a hot pot minus the liquid, a sort of new school communal stir fry. And because there's no liquid to dilute any of the ingredients, expect the Sichuan dry pot to deliver a magnified flavor which might make you wish there was a broth to simmer down the heat. That's the beauty of Duo-pot's two-in-one setup: everything inherently flavorful of a dry pot, offered with a kiddie pool of traditional broth-based hot pot in the center.
Where: Duo-pot
1228 S Golden West Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007
What: Szechuan Special Spicy Dry-Pot with crisp pork intestines, homemade vegetable noodles.

Taiwanese style: Like the Cantonese version, the Taiwanese interpretation used to be fairly tame in the spice department, with a chicken or mutton stock umami'ed up with mushrooms before raw sliced lotus roots, Taiwanese cabbage, bok choy, fish and shrimp balls, fried tofu, greens, and sliced beef, mutton, or pork is added to simmer all together. But here in SoCal Taiwanese hot pots can be extremely piquant and best approached with caution, with the Boiling Point's "Taiwanese Spicy" hot pot living up to its moniker, resembling a Korean G.I. stew (budae jjigae) in its packed consistency.
Where: Boiling Point
206 S. First Ave.
Arcadia, 91006
What: House Special (no spicy) or Taiwanese Spicy

New School: Sichuan hot pot chain Hai Di Lao has much to boast, whether it be about its 75 locations across China and now here in Arcadia, or about the restaurant's tech savvy iPad ordering system, or the supposed $4 million dollars spent to build within the Westfield Santa Anita Mall. But there's one real reason this hot pot restaurant keeps people talking: the Noodle Dancer. One part Olympics opening ceremonies act with an extra serving of a Chinese Corey Feldman channeling his best/worst Smooth Criminal moves using 10-foot-long ribbons of dough as a prop, you'll quickly recognize you've never had handmade noodles made this way, for a hot pot or otherwise.
Where: Hai Di Lao
400 S. Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, 91007
What: Hot pot with Noodle Dancer moves.

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