A Chinatown staple morphs into a hot-pot spot to kick the chill out of Chicago winter
I woke up hungover with visions of soup dumplings in my head. Sundays are for dim sum, for meeting up with friends in Chinatown and soaking up what's left from the night before. Intending to do just that, I arrived at Phoenix Dumpling House, only to find a closed sign standing between me and my routine. Another sign stated that this haven for soup-dumpling lovers was no more, and that on November 4, Shabu Shabu would open in its place. I shuffled up the stairs to the Dumpling House's big-brother restaurant, Phoenix, claimed a sticky table in the VFW hall–like space and lamented to anyone who'd listen that this dim sum–stitute wasn't half as good as its now-deceased downstairs sibling.
But then I realized that my grief could be replaced by anticipation, and that I should get over it, move on and embrace the hot-pot restaurant to come. Shabu-shabu is the Japanese name for hot pots, an ancient Chinese staple that involves cooking meats and vegetables in a pot of broth resting over a flame. The Chinese call it huo guo, or "fire pot," but in America it's recognized as shabu-shabu, or "swish swish." Its origins can be traced to around A.D. 600, when eating freshly cooked meat and drinking warm broth kept northern Chinese nomads from an early grave. (We're talking winters that would make Chicago feel like Cancun.)
Hot pots typify Confucian ideals of togetherness, unity with family and clan. So when I visited Shabu Shabu on opening night, it was no surprise to see a room packed with large parties. At one end, three tables pulled together overflowed with plates brimming with raw strips of bright red beef; slick, gray, heads-on shrimp; mounds of green watercress; stacks of thick, brown shiitake mushrooms; and wagon wheel–shaped lotus-root slices. Diners chattered in Chinese while dropping the meats, vegetables and noodles into steaming cauldrons of broth that sat centered like the eye of the storm. After fishing the cooked morsels out with wire scoops, there were swift dips into small white bowls of custom-made sauces before the bites disappeared, and it was onto the next. Every now and then, someone hit the sauce table to concoct mixtures out of a dozen choices, from simple soy to crunchy garlic bits swimming in sesame oil.
Following suit and using the order form, we chose each of three soup bases—basic veggie-chicken stock, coconutty "satay" and spicy Szechuan-style—and a dozen ingredients to bulk up our broth, from pillowy shrimp dumplings to crunchy snow-pea sprouts. My friends and I made like those around us: We "swished" tender veggies, let meats and fish simmer a bit, experimented with sauces, and collided chopsticks once or twice angling for the last fish ball or ribbons of vermicelli. The ingredients were as fresh as any in town, the broths fragrant and complex, and the hot pot's purpose to warm and unify was met. And just like that, I had a new Sunday routine.
2131 S Archer Ave between Wentworth and Princeton Aves (312-328-1205). El: Red to Cermak-Chinatown. Bus: 18, 21, 62. Open: Dinner (Fri–Sun). Average hot pot: $25 (feeds 2–4).