Every time I go to Spices I! on 8th and Clement, I like it more. This is no small feat in SF, where there are hundreds of great restaurants but few that I find myself wanting to go to again and again.
Spices I! is now serving four or five kinds of hot pot. When I went two months ago they had put up posters but didn't have the goods. This is hot pot in the sense that it comes on a gas burner and has tons of meat and vegetables in it, NOT hot pot in the sense that you can cook things yourself.
Unfortunately, the hot pots have names like "Mongolian Nomad hotpot" and "1/2 bottle rice wine added!" so you pretty much have to rely on the waitress to describe each to you. We skipped this step and pointed to the table next to us: "We want that." Hilariously enough, halfway through our meal a group came in, looked over at our hot pot, sniffed, and said "We'll have that." The waitress called it the "xiao fei yang (little fat lamb)" hot pot, for those interested.
The pot: a simmering claypot of lamb slices (very slightly tenderized), garlic greens, green onions, assorted vegetables, and thick bean threads. The soup was positively vermillion, with a heavy scent of cumin. Initially the smell is remniscent of a great pot of chili, but as soon as you start tasting it the differences become apparent. This dish looks spicier than it tastes, which allowed me to enjoy some of the soup along with the meat and vegetables--just get past that initial layer or red oil!
For $17, one hotpot easily feeds two if you order nothing else. Those who don't thrive on spicy food would be well-advised to order some rice, simple vegetables, or other non-spicy dishes on the side.
We ordered a hot pot and a plate of "ants up a tree," a traditional Szechuan dish consisting of bean thread noodles, ground pork, and various numbing spices (the pork looks like ants on the bean thread "tree," and the numbing spices make your tongue tingly and your skin crawl...gross, eh?). I forget the exact total, but it was in the low 30's, and we did have too much food (but managed to pack it all away).
Even though I loved both dishes, the hotpot really did overpower the ants up a tree dish. I wouldn't order them together again; the hotpot needs to be paired with something with a completely different flavor: stir fried greens and stinky tofu come to mind.
This photo is of their beef noodle soup, but imagine it in a large clay pot and you have an idea what the lamb hotpot looks like. Yum...
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