Thursday, May 7, 2009

Don't Hock at Lu Gi: A Tyro’s Guide to Hot Pot

I have long struggled with Chinese food, the only national cuisine to which I took a visceral disliking. My opinion changed after experiencing the spicy complexities of Chung King, but I’ve never been taken by any other Chinese restaurant. So I cannot dismiss Chinese food altogether, and the San Gabriel Valley’s rich dining scene is just too alluring. Still, it can be so inaccessible, and virtually every one of our adventures in the SGV has been met with failure. (Thanks, J Gold.) As it turns out, all I need is a guide. (Not J Gold.)

Ergo, we met SinoSoul and his fiancée, Hayon, at Lu Gi, a Taiwanese hot pot joint in San Gabriel. When we sat down at our cramped booth, I was totally overwhelmed. There was a bifurcated cauldron of two broths cooking on the table-top burner, one glowering with all of its dark redness and another more docile looking one, tranquil and clear. Lu Gi, according to SinoSoul’s footnotes, does not have a “ma la” pot, which I understand is exceedingly spicy. Lu Gi offers only a “la” pot. The white broth, the yuānyāng, was decidedly un-medicinal relative to Sichuan hot pot.

There was an array of ingredients on the table: platters of thin slices of raw beef and raw lamb; a tower of quivering tripe; assorted mushrooms, tofu, and taro; various dumplings made of squid, shrimp, and K-crab; squid noodles which somehow replicated the shape and texture of calamari; long, grassy noodles; leafy greens, including those from a chrysanthemum; and finally, a fish cake, a supposed specialty of the house. After surveying the table, I realized that these items would be going into the broths. There was also a delightfully garlicky seaweed salad with a spicy kick for everyone to nosh on.

As for the hot-potting procedure, Tony C. explained that we were to take our small bowls over to the salsa bar of debatable hygiene, mix in a few sauces, add a pinch of some satay sauce, sesame oil and soy sauce and then start loading up on all the good stuff boiling in the broths. If there is an art to the hot pot, I did not master it. But I did manage to make quite a mess. We ate for over two hours and had a great time doing it. But with my inelegant blending of all the sauces and inability to maintain the segregation of the two broths, I couldn’t really discern anything from any other, with one exception. I really liked the fish cake, which pre-boiling was a gray shapeless mass of fish paste with corn starch and whatever else. The only thing it resembled, if remotely, was truly gelatinous gefilte fish. Tony C. broke the mass into smaller pieces and boiled them in the two broths. I was taken with its inherent fishiness; underneath the multiple layers of clashing sauces and broths, I could somehow still taste the sea in it. Granted the volumes of MSG in the spicy broth helped elicit this effect. But maybe what I tasted was that umami thing that is infecting hamburgers on La Brea. In any event, two hours of chazering this stuff kept us up all night, chugging from the large, cold bottles of water the ESP had the foresight to place at our bedside. While Lu Gi was absolutely terrific in the moment, I’m not sure I’ll return soon. But I will absolutely return to the SGV with SinoSoul for some more fressing.

Lu Gi
539 W. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel
(626) 457-5111

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