It could be a mean trick to play on a tender-mouthed child. That's because the bunny above has almost no DNA in common with the Palmer chocolate family. But to the right audience, the angry-orange mound of deep chile flavor is a sizzling spectacle.
Some restaurants get by on quality, others rely on gimmicks. Niu Jiao Jian Hot Pot can claim both feats. And the crowds have already gotten word. When I arrived at 6 p.m. last Sunday at the space formerly occupied by Korean barbecue spot Arirang, I ended up waiting about 45 minutes for a table. Service could best be described as chaotic. And yet, I can't wait to return.
The reason is in the chiles. There are six different soup options, including tomato, sour and bone broth flavors. But fans of Szechuan food are bound to salivate at the complexity of the spicy hot pot. Lovers of the kawaii-cute of Hello Kitty? Ask for the bear. I was told there are about 45 of the blocks of hot, fresh cuteness available daily, so it's imperative to arrive early. Typically, the chile oil is shaped like a bear. I lucked out with the wascally wabbit I was served.
Even confirmed innamorati of the numbing florals of Szechuan peppercorns are likely to find themselves looking for something with which to wipe their noses as the clouds of spicy vapor hit sensitive membranes. It's a sensation best described as "hurts so good."
My dining partner and I added to the soup with basics like noodles and a basket full of green vegetables, but also rolls of fatty beef surrounding fronds of cilantro. Other options include beef aorta, boneless duck feet and less ambitious selections like meatballs and tofu.
Less than $3 grants you access to the sauce, appetizer and dessert bar. There, I mixed up a combination of black vinegar and sesame oil to add acid to the heat of the broth-boiled ingredients. Though simple, I also appreciated the veggie spring roll and chile-flecked noodles while I waited for my soup. Dessert is less exciting, limited to sesame balls and fruit.
But if I say I went strictly for the culinary experience, I'd be a liar. I'm just a girl who wanted to have my mouth burned by a cute bunny. And in that respect, it's hard not to succeed with a meal at Niu Jiao Jian.