A meal at Haidilao in Flushing can involve four broths and dozens of ingredients. Photo: Janice Chung

We are seven strong at the Haidilao in Flushing, Queens. On one blustery Saturday afternoon, we have each made the pilgrimage to the end of the 7 line with the common cause of eating our faces off. “I only ate a banana today in preparation,” says Jodie, which is one more thing than either my boyfriend or I have eaten. Everyone in our group is of hotpot experience, which is another way of saying that everyone is Asian or has an Asian lover. Most of us have donned the appropriate attire — black, fashionable, machine-washable — except for Jason, who will brave the impending splatter of chili oil with a white T-shirt. We arrive for our 2 p.m. reservation and won’t leave until after the sun has set.

Along with Korean barbecue and boba, Chinese hotpot has become one of the defining genres of Asian American dining. For the better part of the last decade, the hotpot scene in Manhattan revolved around the all-you-can-eat fervor of 99 Favor Taste and Hou Yi. I associate these places with a youthful confidence that the stomach was an endless void. In New York, hotpot has boomed over the past five years as Chinese imports have taken a regional battle global. Over a week, I went to as many locations as I could spread out across the Chinatowns in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, but there was something about the optimized spectacle of Haidilao, especially, that made me want to luxuriate in the experience for as many hours as possible. Or maybe it was Tomato Boy.

Haidilao, which means “scooping the bottom of the ocean,” began with a single restaurant in 1994 in Jianyang, Sichuan, and now numbers over 1,300 locations worldwide. Over the decades, the franchise has married customer service with hotpot to anticipate desires you never knew you had. There are locations that offer such amenities as shoeshining, car washes, mid-meal massages, and mani-pedis. While the Flushing location doesn’t do nail art, there is a seamless alacrity to the proceedings. As we’re ushered into a roomy three-sided booth, we receive a barrage of complimentary items: plastic bags for our phones, aprons for our persons, elastic ties for our hair, and moss-green cloth bags for our winter coats and bags.

Our waiter is friendly and encouraging as she hands us the tablet to order from: “Don’t be shy, it’s hotpot!” she reminds us. So true. We are hungry and unafraid. First we must decide on the soup base. Whereas many hotpot places only offer the possibility of two types in a yin-yang-shaped cauldron, Haidilao’s square-shaped pots allow for the option of four bases. So of course we get four: spicy beef tallow, pork tripe and chicken, tomato, and — rather boldly — fresh coconut water and chicken. None of us has ever had it, but we are following “yes and” principles where dining is iterative and collaborative. “No” is not a word we acknowledge at this table.

Everyone has something specific they want. Shrimp paste! Shrimp paste stuffed with salted duck eggs! Imitation crab meat! Lotus root! Chicken gizzard! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. We get beef five ways: fatty slices, Wagyu short rib, Kobe belly, tripe, and tongue. There are fish balls stuffed with masago, a seafood platter with mussels, squid, fish, and shrimp. We want our vegetables in the form of pea shoots, bamboo shoots, chrysanthemum greens, enoki, and oyster mushrooms. We order the “signature dancing noodles.” In total, we get 44 different things to eat and drink. I believe that there are fewer places to survey the edible expanse of God’s green earth than table 61 at Haidilao.

Before the ingredients arrive and the stock comes to a boil, there is the business of making the dipping sauce. For years I have erred on the side of simplicity: soy sauce and black vinegar with chili crisp, herbs, and some sesame paste. I look at mine and then look at my friend Jason’s abundant, maximalist bowl and feel I have been doing this all wrong. His is a sticky, complex blend of savory umami, spicy, and sweet. I would be remiss not to share the knowledge, so here is my (gorgeous, single!!) friend Jason’s method for making dipping sauce in this order:

1. Start with a healthy scoop of seafood shacha sauce (made of dried shrimp, brill, and soybean oil)

2. Lots of black vinegar

3. Soy sauce

4. Dried chili powder, which you don’t really taste but adds a bit of spicy umami

5. Premium beef sauce

6. A good amount of minced garlic

7. “A ton, a ton, a tonnnn” of cilantro.

8. Scallions

9. Mushroom sauce

10. If you like sesame sauce, this would be the moment you add it.

11. If you want the sauce to be a little more runny, you might want a little bit more soy in here, or per Diana and Jodie, you can crack a raw egg yolk to make your sauce more unctuous. Ultimately, the measurement style is personal taste and vibeology. Don’t be shy: It’s hotpot!

When it’s time to eat, something primal activates inside of us. We move by instinct and put things into the soups. The Wagyu melts with each bite (or maybe it’s the dollars); the grassy sting from the chrysanthemum leaves offers a healthy reprieve. “Can you imagine if this were a first date?” asks Diana, as skewers pile by her plate. “I think it would be a great first date,” says Jodie. “It’s collaborative and without vanity. You’d learn a lot about a person.”

Hotpot is a community effort: You cook for yourself and for others. Kathleen lovingly places cooked pieces on other people’s plates, almost forgetting to eat herself. The chopsticks at Haidilao are perfectly suited for this enterprise — nearly foot-long tapers that offer a workout if you’re not used to them. Hotpot is a full-body commitment. The heat from the Sichuan peppercorns numbs my lips. I sweat. My pores steam open over the bubbling broths, my stomach fills. I pass in and out of consciousness.

We snap to attention when it’s time for the dancing noodles. A cook appears tableside with a small piece of dough that he begins to pull and stretch into a ribbon that flutters and cascades around his head. He is twirling and whipping it across the table as though he were competing in rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics. I feel like a kid going to a Benihana knockoff and watching the chef put a shrimp in his hat for the first time. We applaud.

We have also heard rumors about “cheat codes” you can use at Haidilao — that is, secret phrases you can say to unlock free goodies. In Singapore, for instance, if you say, “Little fairy is here for hotpot,” you can get a magic fairy wand. Jason’s Chinese is the best, so we make him do it. When the waiter comes by, he says, “Your watermelon is so sweet” in an attempt to get some free slices of watermelon. (We’re not making this up!) Our server covers her mouth and blushes. “Does that mean anything?” he asks. “No,” she says. Would we like some soft-serve? Of course, we say.

Sometime in the last half-hour, I look around and see that every tray has been cleared and a blissful quiet settles on the table. We have reached the point of every hotpot meal when we enter a collective coma. Any fear that we had ordered too much has been dispelled. We did it, and we had done it together.

For hotpot in Manhattan …
On a recent visit back to the 99 Favor Taste on Grand Street, I saw that like most of us, my former flame had seen some things. It was quieter than expected with pandemic-era plexiglass sealing off the booths. The menu was limited, but to eat as much as you want for $28 is still an astonishing deal — stoned college student or not. Still, my personal Manhattan recommendation is Da Long Yi, the Chengdu eatery that opened its first U.S. location on Canal Street. Its spicy base comes with a warning and arrives with a bobbing log of beef tallow spiked with chili peppers. The ingredients are fresh and prepped with care. In addition to the usual spread, I enjoyed the fresh tofu skin, which looks like golden parchment, and the gelatinous, delightful chew of beef tendon, which surprisingly few places have.

… and Brooklyn:
For those who are homesick for the San Gabriel Valley, I would recommend the Sunset Park location of Chongqing Wharf. Unlike Haidilao, which had high dividers like office cubicles, Chongqing is an incredible scene of Asian American suburbia. There’s a large pavilion-like structure in the middle of the restaurant bisected with rows of booths. There’s blue overhead lighting that creates an underwater-club vibe. Newjeans plays on the speakers. There are aunties wearing neon-colored berets and stomping boots; tatted muscle daddies with toddlers sipping Taiwanese soy milk; and a baddie who looks Facetuned. The baby in the booth next to us is obsessed with us and sticks her hands through the divider. Most importantly, Chongqing Wharf is an all-you-can-eat affair at around $50 per person. As we were ordering, our waiter was looking out for us and suggested we order more seafood, because “that’s why the price is so high.” In addition to the usual firm white fish and squid, there are razor clams, spot prawns, Blue Point oysters, blue crab, manila clams, green mussels, conch, and a whole lobster pre-cut into perfect dipping portions. We experienced that same happy, quiet satisfaction as the last pieces of lobster were cooking, with none of the stomach trouble afterward.

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