October 28, 2010 | | Comments 21

iSpicy Sichuan Hot Pot on Kingsway, Vancouver

It was cold. It was damp.

And we were hungry as we drove along Kingsway looking for a place to eat. It was past 2PM already and we only had a cup of coffee and shared a bagel between us since morning. We were telling ourselves that half of the restaurants would probably be closed for the mid day.

I caught a glimpse of the “All You Can Eat  $17.95″ sign outside the restaurant and said Suanne maybe we should just try this place. It’s not in our list of restaurants to-try but I fancy hot pot. It was after all a cold day. Nothing but a Sichuan Hot Pot to spice things up.

iSpicy is an odd name. It sounded more like an internet cafe than a traditional hot pot restaurant. We went in and we were warmly welcomed. The owner and his wife barely speaks English. We are OK because we don’t need to know a lot of Chinese when it comes to AYCE and hot pot.

But as it turned out, we had a very interesting time there. We had a glimpse of what it is like in the struggles of a restaurant owner. We saw a human side of a smallish restaurant trying their very best to remain relevant in a very competitive sector of the economy. More about that later.

iSpicy is a really small restaurant. They have seats for about 20-25 people. Not big for an AYCE hot pot.

It is only natural, I guess, to expect a smaller hot pot restaurant to charge cheaper. iSpicy’s hot pot is on par with other AYCE hot pot restarants in town. It is $18 for adult.

The choices on the menu is smaller too. We know that for places with larger menu, most of the menu items are fluff. To us the most important thing is the quality of the meat, the beef in particular.

I was a bit confused about the hotpot base. They have a few sizes — small, large and extra large. They crossed out the extra large because it really doesn’t make sense. In most places they charge by the pot and not the size of the pot. The hotpot base does not have the fancy flavours that some places has. It is the spicy soup base that is their primary offering.

As usual we opted for the half-half and said that for the spicy side, it has to be “da-la” (big spicy). The owner told me that I should just go with the middle spicy owe as his da-la might be too much for me. Good thing I did not stick to my original choice!

The mixed soup base is $8.50 extra. The non-spicy side is made of pork bone. We were asked to taste the soup and he pointed out that the broth is not salted.

We also tasted the Sichuan soup base. It was really spicy. It had big dried red pepper pieces swimming in a very visible layer of red colored oil.

We later learned that the chef made the sichuan soup base himself from scratch. He told us that it takes … five hours to fry a batch of chilis and spices to get to this level of spiciness.

We also learned later that he is a chef from Chengdu, Sichuan and has over 20 years doing nothing but Sichuan hot pot. He said that he still has a restaurant in China.

Ding. That was the first word that came to my mind when I saw that saucer of condiments.

A Ding is always three legged. In ancient China, a Ding is used for ceremonial purposes. It also has another purpose … and that it is also used for cooking. I recall reading a book that the Chinese Ding is the oldest type of vessel created specifically for cooking. Before this, humans were cooking over naked fire and with the invention of the ding, it is humankind’s first foray into culinary journey into what we have today.

I always thought that bit of info was fascinating. If I had all the time in the world (which I don’t!) I would like to study about ancient cuisines around the world and how it came to evolve to what we have today. He he he … yeah, maybe I’ll do that when I retire.

They were generous with the free condiments. Some places even charge you extra for these. Here they gave us a large serving of garlic, chili, green onions and cilantro.

Some condiments were extra though. The sesame paste (the brownish sauce) is $1.50 per serving. We got two but Suanne practically had both of them. She stole from my bowl without me noticing. She is good at doing that.

I told your earlier that we learned a lot of this restaurant and since the owner and his wife doesn’t speak English, the question is how did we learn all this. Well, the owner’s teenage son came in to help and he speaks perfect English. We had a great time chatting with him and his father was at times egging him to tell us more about his business and about Sichuan hot pot. LOL!

It was only after the meal that the son told us that the sesame paste is just OK. The way people eat SPICY hot pot in Sichuan is to make a dipping sauce out of sesame oil, vinegar and cilantro. It brings the flavour of the meal out perfectly, he added. Too bad we were already done eating but we were quite intrigued by that.

We were told that for the non-spicy broth, people should use the sesame paste as the dipping sauce (the one we had).

The marinated beef is their most popular item. It was tender.

The lamb was particularly good too. We can’t tell this from beef until we tasted it. Not many Chinese likes lamb saying that it is gamey. Not us. We love lamb.

If there is one meat that Chinese love a lot, it is pork … and chicken, isn’t it?

The beef, the meat we look forward to always in hot pot wasn’t as good as we had in other places. Our favourite hot pot restaurant remains as Fatty Cow on Victoria.

The beef here is leaner than I like. The ice crystals on the beef makes me think that they just took this out of the freezer.

We also ordered gizzards (turned out to be very hard and crunchy) and liver. They are small and when it gets into the broth with all the chili, spices and peppercorns, fishing them out is like looking for a needle in a haystack. :-) Yeah, it was hard to get to them.

The fish above is very fishy – we didn’t like it at all. As a matter of fact, we took a bite and decided we did not want it anymore.

The food here is hit and miss. Anyway, we devoured mostly the beef and the lamb … he he he … to get our money worth.

What we enjoyed a lot though was the spicy broth. It is different from the rest and it has a real kick to it.

One thing we also learned from the chef is that we should never cook green leafy vegetables in the spicy broth. This is because they absorb all the chili oil and makes the vegetables really spicy. Now I know why I often choke eating spinach out of the spicy hot pot broth.

There were a lot of chilis in the broth. So I scooped out the chilis because it is too “busy”. Both the owner and later on the son, told us that we should not do that as it is this chili that gives the meat the flavour. They told me like I made a big mistake doing it and I broke protocol or something. :-)

So I said Suanne and I had a great time chatting with the owner’s son. iSpicy had opened only for two months. The family moved to Canada about 3 years ago.

We were told that they offer authentic Sichuan hot pot and that not many restaurants can mimic their broth. Business was great in the first two months. iSpicy was known through word of mouth in the Chinese speaking community. They told us that people were raving about how authentic their Sichuan hot pot is and that they are the best in town. All these were in a Chinese forum called vanpeople.com. This resulted in people lining outside for a table on some days.

All that changed about a week before our visit. They told us that in the same forum, a new discussion thread on that forum turned things around. One negative review after another came up and in just two days the line outside the restaurant evaporated. The owners son told us that they suspected that the negative reviews are put in by their competitors adding that many of the negative reviews are made by 1-time commenter who created accounts on the same day of the comment.

Well, I stay out of it but I am a good listener. But I can sense the pain and frustration they had … and how the internet can be used to make or break a restaurant.

There are many hot pot restaurants in town and I do think that iSpicy has a challenge ahead dealing with restaurants like the newly expanded Spicy Legend down the road.

Here are my thoughts. I think their prices is not competitive enough. They do not have the volume to make a big variety of choices with better meat (quite unlike Fatty Cow who actually also owns a butcher shop). Their soup base is what sets iSpicy apart from the rest.

iSpicy Hot Pot on Urbanspoon

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  1. Elaine says:

    Not many Chinese likes lamb saying that it is gamey. <<< not true @@"

    Chubby Lamb has so many restaurants in China and people always go there just to eat lamb!

  2. fmed says:

    Nice find! Looking forward to trying it.

  3. LotusRapper says:

    Liking lamb is a regional thing, in China. But more southern Chinese folks may be more adverse to eating lamb than northern and western Chinese.

  4. souggy says:

    Wonder how long before Steve Jobs buy them out.

    Oh God, Apple fast-food.

  5. Lamb is not my favorite meat but all the others looks delicious! Your pictures are fabulous!

  6. Buddha Girl says:

    I saw this restaurant few times I drove by…but since Buddha Boy don’t really like hot pots…I had to pass…LOL! I think it was a bubble tea restaurant before…

  7. Ryan says:

    Hi Ben,

    Off topic, but if you like sauces with your hotpot, I would recommend Top Hot Pot in Aberdeen Center. It is on the 3rd floor next to Fisherman Terrace.

    At this place, they bring out a cart of sauces and condiments, and you can make your own at no-extra cost. The place is a bit more expensive ($22 I think) but considering Suanne spent $1.50 x 2 on peanut sauce already, I think this place is worth it. There is crushed garlic, green onion, ginger, chili, cilantro, soy sauce among others.

    It is also all you can drink plum juice. I think it’s an acquired taste, but I love it and drink maybe 3-4 glasses of it…it really opens up your appetite. Those glasses are usually $1.50 elsewhere too. So I think it’s worth the extra cost for the extra little things.

    Service is very good for an AYCE place. Meat is rolled up nicely, and well marbled. PS. This is strictly YMMV, but we have a VIP card that gives an HST discount…making this place essentially the same price as other AYCE hot pot. But again, I’m not sure how you get this VIP card…maybe tell them your Chowtimes!

    • Ben says:

      Hi Ryan: Did you mean Hot Pot One (and not Top Hot Pot) in Aberdeen? We had been to Hot Pot One but only for dim sum/lunch. I had also been to Top Gun Hot Pot in Crystal Mall … that one I remember they gave us all you can eat condiments and sauces. Yeah, it works out all the same. I would rather go to a place where a price includes all and not charge extra for sauces and drinks. The weather is getting colder these days … look forward to more hot pot visits on this site. :-)

      • Ryan says:

        Ooops sorry. Yes Hot Pot One is the correct name.

        I could be mistaken, but I think Hot Pot One is part of the Top Gun group…maybe that’s why they offer AYCE condiments too!

        • Buddha Girl says:

          Hot Pot One is not part of TG group…it’s not under their banner…

          However, rumor has it that it’s owned by couple guys who formerly worked at Garden City Hot Pot…that’s one many items looked familiar…

          Gonna try to dig it out…

          • Buddha Girl says:

            Just confirmed tonight that Hot Pot One is owned by the former manager at Garden City Hot Pot…named Paul…sorry forgot to ask whether he has partners or not…

            • Ben says:

              Hi Buddha Girl: I guess that meant one thing … that you were at Top Gun AGAIN today! LOL! :-)

              • Buddha Girl says:

                Ben!!!!!!! Grrrrr…shhhhh! **embarrassed** Not my fault…I DID thought of Red Star…but my friend doesn’t like RS…hahahahah!

                • Ben says:

                  Just teasing ya, Buddha Girl. :-) That is why I look so forward to trying Top Gun’s specialty dishes with you — particularly looking forward to the Typhoon Shelter Crab plus fried rice! Ben

                • Buddha Girl says:

                  LOL!!! Ai-ya Ben…pressure is on…don’t get too high hopes…may not turn out as you expected…cuz you know…difference in opinions and preferences…hehehe!

                  I am still trying to convince BB to take the day off…hehehehe!

  8. Wils says:

    Read your post yesterday, so wife and I went there tonight after driving up from Washington and passing the kids off to the parents. Told the son (think you were also served by the older son, as well?) we heard about them from you, so he shared some of the similar recommendations about how to eat hot pot. The spicy soup has a lot of kick – we only got the least spicy, too (small on spicy level and small on the peppers), and it was still enough to give me tingly cheeks.

    We really liked the flavor of both soup bases, but it seemed hit or miss like your experience. I think we ordered mushrooms that we never got, but that’s ok, because there was more than plenty to eat since what they consider “one order” was a lot more than other AYCE places (*cough* *cough* Top Gun?). The marinated beef was also a favorite for the two of us, and the amount of minced raw garlic they provided will be tasted for a few days (a good thing, since that will span Halloween and keep those pesky bloodsuckers away! ;) ).

    Hopefully business picks up for them, but it would be a real tight fit to have 25 people in there. We had a good experience there. It was cozy and we definitely did not feel rushed at all.

    Great find! I just wish I could tolerate spicy stuff better!

    • Ben says:

      Hi Wils: If you had driven all the way from WA, I wished that you visited Fatty Cow instead. I like that place and think you will like it better than iSpicy for the overal experience. To me hot pots are all about (1) the broth and (2) the meat. All others are supporting casts. With Fatty Cow, they have great meat and good broth. With iSpicy they have great broth but just so-so meat. Surprised that you consider iSpicy a great find because I certainly don’t consider iSpicy heads and shoulders above all the the hot pots. Am glad you liked it nevertheless. :-) BTW, are you saying that you tried Top Gun and did not like it? Ben

      • Wils says:

        Hi Ben! My in-laws live near iSpicy and it was a little chilly/wet, so it was a convenient choice :) I do consider it a great find, because I like that mom-and-pop-store feel, that a large open restaurant can’t replicate…kind of like Bo’s flagship store on Joyce. I don’t know how Fatty Cow’s broth is, but I found iSpicy’s non-spicy broth to be very flavorful. I think when they topped up the broth, they used more broth instead of just hot water, too? I have tried Top Gun and do like it (heck, my parents have their membership card), but their version of one order is different than iSpicy, so have to plan accordingly.

  9. [...] got the sesame paste (brownish sauce in picture above) because she learned from iSpicy that it is the best sauce with non-spicy soup base. For your info, the sesame oil is best with [...]

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