Just one step inside LaMei Hot Pot’s front door and I was already pleased. The air was fragrant with spices and a comforting humidity, the tables buzzing with chatty students.
I’ve been eating hot pot since I was young, but if you’re inexperienced, LaMei is a great place to start. The staff are friendly and eager to offer recommendations and instructions. Pick a broth from the list, and it’ll arrive in a steaming pot and simmer at your table throughout your meal. Every table at LaMei has a built-in heating element to keep the broth hot. After it comes to a boil, cook your choice of ingredients, eating them as you go. Some, like corn, may need a few minutes to cook, while others, like thinly sliced beef, are ready in a pinch.
For a classic hot pot experience, I recommend choosing the “half and half” broth. Thanks to a clever divided pot design, you can enjoy two broths at once. The most popular combination is a basic broth on one side and spicy Mala on the other.
The “basic” broth is surprisingly complex, a translucent white with goji berries and a dried red date bobbing on its surface. The spicy broth, Mala, is a Sichuan hot pot staple. Its name translates to “numbing and spicy.” This moniker isn’t so much an indication of astronomical scoville ratings, but of the mouth-numbing effect of Sichuan pepper. We asked for ours fairly hot, but if you’re timid, simply request a milder version. Anyway, you’re not eating the whole bowl, just whatever spicy oil clings to your ingredients.
The most difficult part of eating hot pot, at least at LaMei, may be choosing from the menu’s many ingredients. They have an enormous variety of combination plates and à la carte ingredients. For four people, we ordered the Seafood Platter, Vegetable Platter, Mushroom Platter, Beef and Lamb, and Lotus Root. The seafood platter included fish, mussels, shrimp, squid and mock crab. Our vegetable platter came with corn, tomatoes, sliced yam and baby bok choi.
This variety also makes LaMei a welcoming place for vegetarians. While many hot pot restaurants can be boring for meatless eating, LaMei has plenty of options. Besides the lotus root and mushroom and vegetable platters we ordered, a few that caught my eye were the tofu platter, tongho (chrysanthemum greens), white Chinese yam, rice cakes and thick white Shanghai noodles.
Another feature that stands out is LaMei’s sauce bar. While I understand these are popular China, they are less common in America. You can invent your own sauces by mixing over a dozen ingredients. If you’re stumped, photos at the back of the bar offer inspiration. Some ingredients are fairly salty, like the Preserved Bean Curd or Salted Leek Flower, so be prudent; don’t fill your bowl to the brim. The nutty, smooth sesame sauce is my favorite base.
Hot pot is the focus at LaMei, but we did try some drinks and appetizers before our broth boiled. I once enjoyed my platonic ideal of the Mai Tai at the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, so I’ve been let down since, but LaMei’s were delicious. I insisted we order three appetizers, though I knew we’d barely need them with so much hot pot to enjoy. Pig Ear in Spicy Oil was a beloved childhood comfort food for me (I might have been an unusual kid). The Spicy Chicken Feet were unlike other preparations I’ve tried – cold and pickled with little green peppers. The Preserved Duck Egg with Tofu Salad was a nice pick. If you’ve never had preserved duck eggs, they may surprise you. The eggs are cured until the white becomes a translucent brown, and the yolk, a dark grey-green. The result is a savory delicacy, in this dish tossed with cubes of tofu and spicy red sauce.
After dinner, our mouths still numb from the mala broth, we soothed ourselves with adorable jars of matcha mousse and coconut panna cotta.
Whether you are an adventurous eater or have barely ventured beyond mom’s chicken soup, you’ll be able to assemble a hot pot for your taste at LaMei.
LaMei Hot Pot
256 Broadway, Providence