I've often wondered: Who is the king of Hunanese-style dry hot pot in Chicago? Until last March there was no answer to the question.
You may have noticed the proliferation of Sichuan-style hot-pot restaurants in Chinatown in recent years. If you've visited any of them, you're acquainted with the singular pleasure of hunkering around a roiling vessel of soup and oil, chile, and myriad spices—probably in a group, maybe one on one—your brains thrumming with the electric current of Sichuan peppercorns, dunking morsels of flesh and vegetables into the brew, retrieving them with chopsticks, and gobbling them down until endorphins have flooded your brain and you've achieved a perfect state of euphoric exhaustion.
What we haven't seen, until now, was a distinctly Hunanese version of that experience. In fact, as a city we've been denied the unique pleasures of food from that particular southern Chinese province since Tony Hu's late, great, and tragically short-lived Lao Hunan went down with the Mayor of Chinatown. Hunanese is generally regarded as spicier and brighter than Sichuanese food, and in it peppercorn ma la is usually subordinate to chile heat—though you can still catch a buzz.
If you find Sichuanese hot pot too intense you might consider Sizzling Pot King, the seventh outpost of a rapidly expanding west-coast chain, which opened in Greektown last March, assuming the title of de facto king of Hunanese-style dry hot pot in Chicago. SPK is the brainchild of 32-year-old Shengbo Chen, a San Diego IT engineer who this week opened his eighth location in Fremont, California. When I asked Chen how many more Sizzling Pot Kings he planned to open, he paused for a long moment. "I don't know," he said. "It's the best Chinese food. Why not more?"
Chen was born in Jiangxi, the province next to Hunan, but he attended university in Beijing before earning his PhD at Ohio State. He currently has locations in San Diego, San Francisco, and Sunnyvale, California; Dallas; and Bellevue, Washington, across Lake Washington from Seattle (he's opening another in the latter city next month). That map says a lot about the dispersal of postgraduate Chinese immigrants across the country—in each of these cities Chen has teamed up with former schoolmates, many of whom are hanging on to their day jobs. He met his Chicago partner (who prefers to remain silent in deference to his engineering gig) in school in Beijing. Chen's partners may all hail from different parts of China, but all of his chefs are from Hunan.
This means that we once again have the opportunity to tackle finely sectioned pickled green beans with ground pork (a personal Lao Hunan favorite) and fat, fleshy green chiles stir-fried with thinly shaved pork. The list of Hunanese offerings isn't as deep as Lao Hunan's was, but there's quite a bit to get into, even extending beyond the borders of the province, like a marvelous platter of "Chef's Magic Tofu": large, flat sheets of custardy, lightly fried house-made bean curd stacked and draped with a glossy red sauce that merely hints at sweet-and-sour. Wuhan hot-dry noodles—one of China's iconic dishes—are rarely seen in these parts, but they're represented here. Served (at room temp, actually) with finely chopped vegetables—not out of sync with Hunan's frequently pickly profile—these are served in a light sesame sauce reminiscent of, but applied much more judiciously than, the usually gloopy American-Chinese takeout descendants of this dish.
But the chief attraction at SPK is, of course, the hot pot. Maybe you love the communality of hot pot but not the labor involved. A dry hot pot allows you all the freedom while requiring none of the work, amounting to a customizable stir-fry with endlessly variable options.
Wisecracking young servers will offer you the breakdown: choose a size, a spice level, and a "flavor." (Chen says his base "secret" sauce contains more than 20 seasonings, though a milder "garlic" choice is offered for the spice averse.) You can order it sweet-and-sour or hot and sour, or opt for a seafood version with a whole tilapia to pick apart, but the ma la option, with a liberal yet relatively restrained dose of Sichuan peppercorns, is really the way to go, particularly if you enjoy the sensation in moderate levels.
Default ingredients include soft potato wedges that absorb the sauce, as well as broccoli, celery, cauliflower, soybean sprouts, and bright red chiles with cilantro and sesame seeds. Choose additions from an enormous list of vegetable and "griddled" proteins, from catfish to cuttlefish, pork ribs to beef tendon, lobster balls to quail eggs, and tofu to kelp, plus Spam-like slabs of "luncheon meat" and lots more. The resulting hot pots are prepared in the kitchen and arrive as riots of textures and flavors. They're enormous too. I spent several subsequent days happily nibbling on supertender griddled lamb riblets with eggplant and king oyster mushrooms, and thin, beefy slices of tongue with bony chunks of bullfrog and Napa cabbage, all marinated in the potent sauce and soaked up by ample helpings of rice.
SPK's seemingly sudden appearance in Greektown—around the corner from some of the most touristy restaurants in town and next door to a Philly's Best cheesesteak joint—seems like an anomaly. One evening a server jokingly asked my party if we'd meant to go there instead. A no-frills interior with a commanding view of the skyline seems to do it no favors either. Chen tells me that he suspects the lack of parking is part of the reason the Chicago location, selected for its proximity to UIC and the residential towers popular with expats, has so far underperformed relative to the other branches. This is unacceptable. That's no way to treat the singular representative of Hunanese food in the city, much less the king. Please pay your respects. v