An extravagant facade in Cleveland's old Chinatown quickly gives way to a somewhat disquieting landing. A block-long exterior along Rockwell Avenue, the recipient of a recent beautification project, welcomes visitors with a showy procession of gilded doors, jade-green awnings and stately columns in royal red, the color commonly associated with joy and luck in the Chinese culture. But open the internal door that leads into Sichuan Hot Pot and you're forced to muscle your way through a vinyl strip curtain, the sort commonly found inside a walk-in cooler.
Fears of dining in an icebox quickly dissipate, however, thanks to numerous wide-brimmed bowls of simmering broth that fill the room with a heady, humid vapor of exotic spice. Around those hot pots, animated groups of young Asian diners use chopsticks to shuttle raw ingredients from plate to pot to mouth with nimble fluidity.
Just when you think that Cleveland's Chinese restaurant scene can't possibly get any better, when stalwarts like Siam Cafe, Li Wah and Szechuan Gourmet are joined by thrilling additions such as Han Chinese and LJ Shanghai, along comes Sichuan Hot Pot to gobble up some of the attention. And deservedly so, as die-hard fans of tongue-tingling Szechuan cuisine can't seem to stay away from the relative newcomer.
I know I can't, which admittedly is a rare sensation given my crowded dance card. But I carve out time for places that excite, delight and challenge me the way that Sichuan Hot Pot does, even after back-to-back visits. Fans of the cuisine, like me, crave the electrifying spiciness of authentic Szechuan food in much the same way that those with a sweet tooth lust after boxes filled with sugary donuts.
As is the case at other Asian eateries in the area, the menu here is intimidatingly long and obtuse, with terse designations augmented by a smattering of photos. Chinese characters precede English letters, while tabletop specials placards are entirely without English. But that shouldn't stop intrepid diners from wading in, even if the waters are somewhat unfamiliar.
Most meals start with a cold appetizer, like the omnipresent cucumbers ($6), gleefully crunchy wedges tossed in a sweet, tart and spicy vinegar-based dressing. On the other end of the textural spectrum are the wontons ($6) that come bathed in an aromatic roasted chili sauce. There's heat, but it takes a back seat to the earthy, toasty spice blend. Other cold starters include thinly sliced pork belly with chili garlic sauce ($8) and dry beef with special sauce ($16). That last one might best be described as an acquired taste, not because of the flavor, which is deeply captivating, but for its chewy, jerky-like texture that comes from the dry-fry process.
If you think that bean curd is boring, order the mapo tofu ($9) here to disabuse yourself of that belief. At once electric and comforting, this witch's brew of fire, spice and savory goodness is what it's all about. Tongue-tingling Szechuan peppercorns provide numbing cover so that you can keep spooning the crimson stew onto steamed white rice and devouring it. We took a flyer on a dish called, simply enough, sliced beef with hot pepper ($16) and we did not regret it. Tender, silky and wok-hot slices of stir-fried beef languish in a dark, seductive and pungent sauce. Cabbage, leeks, celery and bean sprouts provide a little crunch.
Part soup, part stir-fry, the shredded pork with pickled cabbage ($8) swaps the incendiary chiles for the more subtle punch of preserved vegetables. A deep bowl of flat noodles in chicken broth is capped with a nest of slender pork strips and crunchy-sour pickled mustard greens that tickle the tongue in a completely different way. There's a winter-appropriate spicy beef noodle soup ($8) with chiles that will warm even the coldest of cockles.
There is always room on the table for vegetables like eggplant in garlic sauce, sauteed Chinese spinach, garlicky green beans or springy pea shoots. If you want more than the complimentary white rice, consider ordering the twice-cooked pork fried rice ($9). The well-seasoned side is studded throughout with melt-in-your-mouth slices of fatty pork and briny fermented black beans.
And then there are the namesake hot pots, with innumerable iterations of spicy and non-spicy broths — or a combination thereof, thanks to a two-sided pot — meats, seafood, veggies and dipping sauces. Design your own experience from a lengthy list that includes items like fried tofu, enoki mushrooms, eggplant, tripe, pork blood curd, spicy beef, fish filet, shrimp, Spam and squid balls, to name only a few. This is social, communal food that's meant to be shared with adventurous friends who can't seem to get enough of those exhilarating, intoxicating chilies, spices and peppercorns.
My mouth is watering just thinking about it.