Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
If you followed this procedure, you probably noticed that pretty much everyone eating was hunched over butane burner-mounted rectangular hotel pans filled with whole fish, half submerged in a burbling lava of hot red oil, Sichuan peppercorns, red chiles, Chinese celery, and whole garlic cloves. This is the house specialty, "grilled fish hot pot." And by "grilled" they mean fried: that would be your choice of catfish or grass carp at $8.95 to $10.95 per pound, respectively.*
Of the latter: yes, that's one species of the dreaded, invasive Asian carp terrorizing our waters to the south, though not the more common silver or hideous bighead carp (the ones that can knock you out of your boat).
I don't know if they're serving Illinois carp at Ma Gong La Po, but forget all the unfavorable things you've heard about the alleged muddy, dirty taste of these creatures—which are, after all, hugely popular in the East, so much so that the Chinese will soon be importing them from a new processing plant in downstate Grafton. Wherever they're coming from, this is an incredibly clean, fresh tasting fish. You might expect an aquatic creature that's first been fried, then subjected to the kind of hot oil treatment reserved for besieged castle walls, might become tough and overcooked. Not these. The silky flesh pulls away cleanly from the significant skeletal structure. Oh, you'll get your fingers sticky picking a few bones out of your teeth, but it's worth it for the hot and sour, tingly ma la buzz this dish offers, which also imparts itself to the optional add ins, such as tofu, cabbage, sweet potato noodles, enoki mushrooms, and more.
Ma Gong La Po's menu has recently been translated into English, so if you can't read Mandarin it's much easier to navigate other offerings, which include dumplings, noodles and northern-style "shredded pancakes," and a not atypical selection of cold appetizers like silky tofu with preserved duck eggs, rabbit in chile sauce, or smoked beef—the thinly sliced cold tripe taste likes licking a nine-volt battery. There's also a bakery case up front, full of the usual pastries, and also some very interesting "chicken cookies" (more on those some other time). Other hot pots—including beef, lamb, chicken, vegetarian, or the intriguing "gluttonous frog"— seem to place second in popularity.
There is one other essential order, particularly if you're going for any sort of hot pot. You'll definitely need a pitcher of the iced herbal tea floating with bits of grass jelly. It's a mildly sweet drink, tasting of cola and barley, and until your endorphins kick in, it provides crucial emergency relief for your blazing palate and sweaty brow.
*There's a 10% discount on the whole bill if you're paying cash