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MaLa Project Delivers Fiery Chinese Hot Pots to the East Village

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Eater NY Senior Critic Robert Sietsema takes a first taste and asks "Where’s the broth?"

Nick Solares

A hot pot place is a winter delight, and Chinatowns in Manhattan and Flushing are dotted with them. Poised over a sterno flame, a big metallic cauldron bubbles with broth. Sometimes a partition in the middle allows two broths to co-exist: one based on bland soy milk, the other incendiary with chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns. You order from a long list of perhaps a hundred meats; sea creatures; mushrooms; noodles; vegetables like lotus root, Napa cabbage, and pea pods; and alliums (garlic, green onions, flowering chives, and the like); and then, using your chopsticks, immerse and sometimes abandon the ingredients in the broth to bob and cook. Certain raw materials require long boiling, but others need just a quick swish.

Hot pots not only provide warmth and fortifying nourishment, but also a communal cooking and eating experience that’s at least half of the attraction. At Little Lamb in Flushing’s Skyview Center, entire extended families sit around each pot, dipping and chatting and generally having a great time. At the end of the feast, they all join in and sip the broth as a last course; it has absorbed all the flavors of the dip-ins that have gone before. Based on a thousand-year-old tradition native to Mongolia and northern China, the hot pot habit has spread throughout the rest of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, and from there to America.

In New York, though, hot pot places have generally been confined to Chinatowns. Which is why a neighborhood like the East Village is ripe for hot-potting, especially as colder weather arrives. A branch of the Chinese-based hot pot franchise Little Sheep will soon appear on the Bowery, but in the meantime, we have the recently opened MaLa Project near the corner of St. Marks and First Avenue. The double-storefront has been transformed into an elongated "X," with three separate seating areas, a kitchen at the end of an empty hallway, and a bar that as yet has no liquor license. The décor is tenement chic, with distressed brick haphazardly whitewashed.

MáLà Project

Photo: Nick Solares

But MaLa — which is Chinese for the numbing and tingling effect of Sichuan peppercorns — is not your typical hot pot place. For one thing, it’s much smaller. But it also offers something called a "dry hot pot," which it claims is something of a fad back in China. While a quick Internet search reveals that dry pots are a comparatively recent phenomenon in Sichuan province, the format in this case seems more intentionally suited to our modern dining habits than some sort of urgent culinary innovation that must be experienced.

Specifically, there is no broth, and thus you don’t get to cook the ingredients yourself. This doubly avoids having heating contraptions and messy pots on the tables, and the ensuing danger this presents to the customers via flame or other heating element and spillage. Of course, it also deprives you of the communal pleasures of cooking, and most certainly shortens your meal time. This is how it works: You pick from among 52 ingredients priced at $3 to $8 for a small handful. (The most expensive? Frog.) These are then cooked by the chef and delivered heaped in a wooden bowl, slicked with chile oil and surmounted by fresh cilantro.

MáLà Project

Photo: Nick Solares

One thing the menu doesn’t stint on is organ meats and ingredients that may be unfamiliar to Western diners. In addition to commonplaces like beef tenderloin, Chinese cabbage, oyster mushrooms, and chicken thighs, you can also get pig artery, fried gluten balls, chicken intestines, and tofu skin. In fact, the selection of ingredients is varied and fantastic, and the restaurant is to be commended for offering the more obscure ones. Two friends and I ordered two hot pots (you are charged per ingredient, not for the number of bowls), specifying one "mild" and the other "super spicy," from a choice of four hotness levels. The mild proved quite spicy in spite of the designation; the super spicy was hot but not wildly so, easily tolerable for chile fans like ourselves. Both contained numbing peppercorns, though maybe not in the abundance you’d find in a Sichuan or northern Chinese restaurant.

The bowls jumbled with ingredients were not much to look at, but both were delicious. In the mild bowl we concentrated on chicken parts: thighs, hearts, and gizzards. Clear and floppy, the sweet potato noodles were a big hit, as were the crunchy lotus-root slices. (If anything lags on the menu’s list of available ingredients, it is among the non-mushroom vegetables.) In the spicier bowl we showcased lamb, beef tongue, five-spice firm tofu, and shrimp balls, quailing at the prospect of pig artery or chicken intestines. Next time, we’ll gird our loins and try those. Rice comes free with each hot pot, but it you include noodles in your selection, you really don’t need it.

[Top: mild dry pot. Bottom: dumplings and scallion pancakes. Photos by Robert Sietsema.]

Neither do you need the dim sum, snacks, and cold apps that round out the menu. But the scallion pancakes ($6) are particularly good and so is the steamed dumpling plate (six for $6). We went away satisfyingly full for around $35 apiece, including tip, but with no beverages. Still, while the dry hot pot delivers in the flavor and spiciness categories, it doesn’t provide the sort of communal experience that you get from the regular hot pot experience. 122 1st Ave, (212) 353-8880

MáLà Project

603 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222 (718) 500-3881 Visit Website