The Six Best Szechuan Hot Pot Restaurants in L.A. (and the Proper Way of Eating It)
7:34 AM PST on December 19, 2022
Hidden away in the mountains of Southwest China is Sichuan, a region famed for málà (麻辣), a unique flavor that is a combo of numbness and spiciness. It’s the numbness from Sichuan pepper (má - 麻) and the heat from Sichuan chili (là - 辣) together that does the magic. For the uninitiated, the first time having Sichuan pepper can feel like an intensive tongue-numbing massage.
Sichuan might be a little bit far from Los Angeles, but it’s actually surprisingly close if you know where to look. As someone born and raised in Chongqing (重庆), like many of my fellow Chongqing natives, I am always looking for the málà that reminds me of my hometown.
What exactly is Chongqing Hot Pot (重庆火锅)?
First off, let’s talk Chongqing hot pot (重庆火锅). Originated in Chongqing, China, Chongqing hot pot is undeniably the málà-est of all the málà, at least according to proud Chongqing natives like me. I will spare you the drama of culinary rivalry between Chengdu, Sichuan, and Chongqing because today we are gonna celebrate both of them.
Known for its spicy, numbing, fresh, and fragrant flavors, the pot is just straight hard-core. A layer of Sichuan pepper and Sichuan chili pepper overcrowds the vibrant red broth of beef tallow that was slowly cooked with spices to reach maximum numb-spiciness - that is the default “traditional málà beef oil” broth base (传统麻辣牛油锅底). But if you don’t want to go too hard on your stomach, no worries, non-spicy or vegetarian options of the broth are also available.
Chongqing Hot Pot can be a very fun experience, but it might be a little confusing for first-timers. No worries, follow my Hot Pot 101, and you will be fine.
Hot Pot 101
Broth base: (Guōdǐ - 锅底) is intended to be the vehicle for cooking. You add stuff (e.g. vegetables, meat slices, etc…) into the broth, wait until it is done, and then you pick it up and eat it. In other words, you cook using the broth, not that you drink it directly. Of course, you can have some of the broth, but it’s just oil and chili.
Here are some commonly-encountered variations of the broth base.
- Málà Beef Oil Broth 麻辣牛油锅 - The classic default choice, also the heaviest and spiciest. Some stores would offer you a scale of spiciness to customize your broth - use your discretion.
- Málà Clear Oil (aka Vegetable Oil) Broth 麻辣清油锅 - The second best option, in my opinion. It can still be as spicy (depending on your request) but it’s more accommodating for your stomach due to the use of vegetable oil. If beef oil broth is too heavy or you prefer a vegetarian option, ask about the clear oil (vegetable oil) option.
- Half & Half 鸳鸯锅 - highly recommended for a mixed-spicybility party (when some of your friends can handle “spicy” while some others cannot). It means half of the pot will be spicy broth, the other half non-spicy, fully separated by a divider. Everybody is happy, so why not?
- For the non-spicy half, you can usually choose from tomato - 番茄锅, mushroom 菌汤锅, or a combination of both 三鲜锅. Go with your heart on this one.
Now you have the broth ready. It’s time to move on to the fun part—dipping sauce.
How to make your own dipping sauce (oil dish/sauce bowl/蘸料/油碟)?
It’s very simple. Fill it up with sesame sauce (for real, fill👏it👏up👏) because the sesame sauce is actually there to cool down the food that you will lift out of the broth, so go big or go home (no pressure, though). If you like, add an extra kick by mixing in a little bit of minced garlic. Put in a few drops of vinegar (only if you want) to keep the flavor balanced.
Keep in mind that this is only a guideline. All the ingredients are optional. You can absolutely let your creativity take you away and try whatever you want. There is no such thing as dipping sauce police.
You’re almost there. Now, the actual cooking. It may seem terrifying at first, but it’s actually quite straightforward. You add stuff to the broth, and it cooks itself!
How to cook using the broth base?
Step ONE, you add stuff to the broth.
Step TWO, you wait (make sure it is fully cooked but also don’t overcook. It takes a while to master it, but you will figure it out…hopefully…)
The rule of thumb: use your judgment. For tripe and duck intestines, 45 seconds to one minute is a safe bet. I would make sure mushrooms are cooked for at least 5 minutes. For really thin meat slices, 2-4 min is fine. For vegetables, heavier stuff like potatoes take probably 7-10 min (depending on the cut. Some really thin cut only takes 1-2 min. Green leaves, probably 3-5 min.)
Step THREE, lift it up when it is done. When it floats, it is probably ready. Please note that some heavier items, like potatoes, might never float. Also, some lighter items like mushrooms float instantly, but it doesn’t mean they are ready! A little bit tricky, eh?
Did your chopsticks have contact with raw food? Put them in the broth and broil for 10-15 seconds (while your hands hold them like you are trying to pick up something with the chopsticks, but you are not actually picking up anything) to make sure they are safe again.
Ok, now let’s go to the hot pot restaurants. This is my personal too-authentic-for-non-Chinese guide to the hidden world of málà food in L.A., now let’s dig in.
Chun La Hao Chongqing Hot Pot 唇辣号重庆火锅
5701 Rosemead Blvd, Temple City, CA 91780. Closest Metro lines and stop: Bus Lines 78, 266, or 489 - “Rosemead/Las Tunas.”
Chun La Hao is a late entrant to the hot pot game in L.A., but it surely has won the trust of even the pickiest hotpot crowd. Not only do they carefully select the freshest ingredients, they also cook the hotpot broth with natural spring water, a tradition started by the brand’s founders in Sichuan, but they brought the practice straight to SGV. No fusion, no compromise, just sticking to the roots. Personally, I love their broth base. Their recipes simply got it right. When you’re here, Get the duck intestine (晾杆鸭肠), black tripe (屠场鲜毛肚), and pork belly (五花肉). If you’re feeling adventurous, tick the Chongqing classic Pork Brain (脑花) on the menu. For side dishes, try out Crispy Pork (酥肉) and Brown Sugar Rice Cake (红糖糍粑). For drinks, maybe you will like the acquired taste of Plum Juice (酸梅汤) or go for crowd-favorite Bei Bing Yang (北冰洋) flavored soda.
Ma Lu Bian Bian Rowland Heights 马路边边直营店
18194 Colima Rd, Rowland Heights, CA 91748
Ma Lu Bian Bian is another international sensation hidden away much further to the East in Rowland Heights. Their first store opened in Chengdu, Sichuan in 2016, and they have been going around the world unstoppable, now with multiple locations in California. But this location in Rowland Heights is unique because it is directly-owned and operated by the original management team from Chengdu. (They are really proud of this).
They are a hot pot restaurant with a twist—ingredients are skewered on chuàn chuàn (串串)— just think of shashlik/barbeque but with bamboo sticks in a hot pot. Gather your friends, get some beer, and get the 串串 going. They have plenty of meat around, but for vegetarians they have even more vegetable and tofu options.
Xiaolongkan Hot Pot 小龙坎
46 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91801. Closest Metro line and stop: Bus Line 76 - “Valley/Garfield.”
Here is a fun anecdote. As someone born and raised in Xiao Long Kan neighborhood in Chongqing, the now-famous hotpot brand from Chengdu, Sichuan—211 miles away—took the name of my neighborhood, and tensions rose between the foodies of our two cities. It turned out, the hotpot from Chengdu tastes even better than what's actually in Xiao Long Kan! (my hometown people will probably be upset reading this)
No matter where it is from, Xiao Long Kan Hot Pot for the real Chongqing-style hot pot. In addition to the traditional half & half pot (they call it Dual Soup), they also have a unique Benz pot layout, as in the car logo of a Mercedes (called “Three Flavors”.) The broth is fresh, tongue-tingling and spicy, and three spiciness levels to choose from. Get the Goose Intestine (鹅肠), Toothpick Beef (牙签牛肉), Beef Aorta (极品黄喉). The usual suspects, beef tripe (鲜毛肚) and pork brain (冒脑花), of course. Also, try the shrimp paste (虾滑) and Quell Eggs (鹌鹑蛋). I love their menu for listing exactly how long it takes to cook the ingredients, very helpful for first-timers, and even for veterans like me. Sometimes even we get confused about the cooking time!
Wuming Hot Pot 吴铭怀旧火锅
529 E Valley Blvd #168, San Gabriel, CA 91776. Closest Metro lines and stop: Bus Lines 76 or 489 - “Valley/Walnut.”
Wuming Hot Pot is the low-key grassroots spot, just minding its own business of trying to make the best Chongqing hot pot in all of L.A. while staying under the radar. It doesn’t have the fame of Xiaolongkan nor is it trying to be extra-fancy like Chun La Hao, it is just there and doing its own thing. However, there are some concerns about the bad service.
It’s OK to have hot pot probably once a month—more than that would be against medical advice. Given that it’s quite a heavy meal for your stomach and wallet, it is usually reserved for special occasions or getting a group of people together for no reason. But málà cuisine (other than hot pot) is more than just hot pot, it is also noodles and home-style daily cooking.
Chengdu Impression 成都映象
21 E Huntington Dr, Arcadia, CA 91006. Closest Metro lines and stop: Metro A Line - "Arcadia Station" or Bus Lines 179 or 287 - “Huntington/Santa Anita.”
Impression Cheng Du sure makes a strong impression. It gives a neighborly bourge vibe like you are walking in the historic center of Chengdu and wandered into an upscale restaurant. The prices may be on the upper end, but the fresh ingredients and on-point spices are worth every dollar. They got the Sliced Sole Fillet in Szechuan Peppercorn Broth (花椒豆腐鱼) or Whole Tilapia with Spicy Pickled Sauce (泡椒立鱼) so right you can feel the Sichuan Pepper popping in your mouth. Allegedly the store secret is that the chef personally hand-picks spices air-lifted from Sichuan every day. (Don’t quote me on this, but this is what the San Gabriel streets are saying) I don’t know how much carbon footprint that is, but either way it is a nice story to believe in. Also get the Wok-Fried Pork Belly (小炒肉) or Numbing Spicy Wonton (老麻抄手) while you are at it. For vegies, you cannot go wrong with Stir-fried Seasonal Vegetable (炒时蔬). Don’t worry, it’s absolutely not the typical strip-mall Asian fusion stir-fry that you can find everywhere, it is real Sichuan stir-fry like it is cooked in Chengdu.
If you are looking for Sichuan’s favorite adventurous dish, get the Stewed Bullfrogs in Spicy Ginger Broth (子姜田鸡) or Spicy Bullfrogs with Vegetable (干锅田鸡). Yes, frogs, more precisely, bullfrogs. Panda Tongyuan (熊猫汤圆) is a popular dessert, kinda small portion, but really cute!
301 W Valley Blvd #114-115, San Gabriel, CA 91776. Closest Metro lines and stop: Bus Lines 76 or 487 - “Valley/Abbot.”
I cried when I went there for the first time. The ZaJiang Noddles with Peas 重庆碗杂面 was so right it instantly brought me back to my childhood. There are many OK noodle places all around, but this is the only one so far I know that really gets everything exactly right—everything, and the Michelin Guide concurs. Whether it’s the Piquant Intestine Noodle (川味肥肠面), House-Special Chengdu Zajiang Noddle (成都杂酱面), or Special Gizzard Noodle (秘制鸡杂面), it’s a full experience. Or if you want to try something new like the Chili Oil Chaoshou (红油抄手) or Szechuan Cold Noodle (四川凉面) when you return for a second time, go for it. For side dishes, get the Chengdu Pickles (泡菜), Steamed Egg (臊子蒸蛋) or Sweet Ice Jelly (冰粉).
Hunan Chili King 辣椒王 湖南土菜馆
534 Valley Blvd Suite2-3, San Gabriel, CA 91776. Closest Metro lines and stop: Bus Lines 76 or 489 - “Valley/Walnut.”
Sichuan Impression 锦城里
235 W Main St Suite B, Alhambra, CA 91801. Closest Metro line and stop: Bus Line 78 - “Main/2nd.”
Nice To Meet You AYCE Hotpot 遇见 串串香火锅
18331 Colima Rd, Rowland Heights, CA 91748
Delicious Chengdu | 品鱼轩
9679 Las Tunas Dr, Temple City, CA 91780. Closest Metro lines and stop: Bus Line 78 - “Las Tunas/Golden West”, Bus Line 267 - "Temple City/Las Tunas" or Bus Line 268 - "Baldwin/Las Tunas."
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