“I don’t think I like hot pots,” Gerry wrote in an email after I told him Zio and I were going to spend a Chow City interlude at the Little Pepper Hot Pot in Flushing.
Despite his hasty judgment based on one hot pot experience (Minni’s Shabu Shabu), Gerry agreed to meet the two of us there.
After reading blurbs about the restaurant, I learned that I could park in the garage of the nearby Sky View Center for free for up to three hours. I didn’t think it would take us longer than that to make quick work of Little Pepper’s hot pot so I pulled into the multi-level parking garage and walked through the gleaming, glass enclosed, Taipei City-like mall, passing such culinary stalwarts as Applebee’s and Chucky Cheese on my out to Roosevelt Avenue.
Where am I?
I found Little Pepper Hot Pot across the street from a 1960’s housing development and then recognized it as the location of the great and original Little Pepper (A Cold Sweat in Flushing), which has since relocated to College Point Avenue.
The tables of the narrow restaurant were all adorned with an electric stove top heater. The menu was attached to a clipboard. What turned Gerry, and most of us off about the other hot pot experience, was the chaos for first timers. We had no clue what to do and the servers at Shabu Shabu were just too busy to deal with our hot pot virginity.
The hot pot heating device.
At Little Pepper Hot Pot our waiter spoke perfect English and was patient with our ignorance of things hot pot related. Still, the three of us, sadly, are not quick studies and at first it was a struggle, especially for the menu-challenged Zio.
“I just have no clue,” Zio said, shaking his head and tossing the clipboard.
I took the menu and studied it. It reminded me a little of the SAT tests where you need to blacken little circles next to the correct answers. Where was Mike from Yonkers, the SAT specialist, when we needed him?
Finally, I think I figured it out and explained to Gerry and Zio that for the table we needed to order one hot pot for $25, which would serve as our cooking device. From there we could choose other meat and vegetable items from the menu to toss into the boiling cauldron.
There were three hot pot options: Szechuan (all spicy), half Szechuan and half “Original” (mild), or all Original. We like to think that we are very brave when it comes to spice. No one can tell us something is too hot for us. And there have been instances when condescending waiters, assuming because of our vanilla visages (speaking about my own only) that we cannot tolerate the same heat as those born with the spice resistance gene.
This was, however, an offspring of the original Little Pepper where they definitely did not pull any punches when it came to spice. So in this instance we decided to take the safe route and go with the option number two: the combination pot.
The pot was brought to the table, placed on the portable stove top and turned on. On one side was the chili pepper red Szechuan while on the other was the clear, milky Original—the two separated by a divider. It wasn’t long before both broths were bubbling furiously.
The yin and the yang of hot pots.
A gigantic tray of vegetables came with the pot: watercress, wood ear mushrooms, corn, bean sprouts, cabbage and a plate of “fatty beef.”
The veggies ready for the pot.
Using chopsticks, I started to drop the meat and vegetables into the hot pot. “Use your hands,” Gerry barked. “You’re taking too long.”
I did as commanded and then the waiter appeared with the other items we ordered: fish, parsley meatballs, king oyster mushrooms, lotus root, cabbage, and enoki mushrooms.
More to go into the pot
“Now what the hell are we supposed to do with these?” Zio wondered, holding up one of the slotted, net-like spoons that came with the hot pot. “Fish out the fish,” Gerry said.
I tried to fish out the fish from the Szechuan side of the pot and came up with something—maybe the wood ear mushrooms and some of that fatty beef. I shoved whatever it was into my mouth and almost immediately my eyes watered and nose ran and I quickly spat it all out. I examined what had flown out of my mouth and was now on my plate. In my insatiable haste, I almost ingested countless pieces of dried hot chilies.
“Next time maybe you’ll be more careful,” Gerry scolded.
And the next time I was able to fish out the fish and the other ingredients that were now all cooked through and deliciously infused with the accumulation of flavors the multiple ingredients gave the broth.
A bubbling cauldron.
The piles of napkins on our table were dwindling at the same rate as the honking noise from our collective noses was increasing. Scooping the meats and vegetables from the “Original” side of the hot pot did little to ease the self-inflicted pain from the heat of the Szechuan side. But no one was complaining. It was what we wanted. What we came here for.
Soon, with the exception of the dried chilies and a few enoki mushrooms, there was nothing much left in either side of the pot.
“I’ll be back,” Gerry, who was originally skeptical, said inferring that another trip to Little Pepper Hot Pot was needed.
“Yeah, me too, but not with the Colonel,” Zio said. The Colonel, who was Zio’s partner, had, as Zio made it known many times, a zero tolerance policy when it came to spice. “One sip of this stuff and her tongue would be fried. She wouldn’t be able to talk for a week. Though that’s not a bad idea.”
As I made my way through the enormous mall to try to locate the car somewhere in the bowels of the indoor parking garage, I could feel a burn in my gullet. It made me think of the song “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash. I hummed it in the car driving back home.
The next morning the tune was still in my head, but it was no longer the Johnny Cash version I was humming. The burn had lingered overnight and the effects I was feeling the next morning were closer to how Ray Charles handled it: slow and deliberate and with a raw blast of the blues (see below). The burn and the accompanying pain, I knew, would fade but it wouldn’t be long before I, like Gerry and Zio, would eagerly go back for more of the same.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: neckbones@fried_neckbones.