Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Griddle-cooked bullfrog with numbing and spicy flavor
Hot pot is having its moment. It's a moment that was, perhaps, crowned when Anthony Bourdain sang its praises and wielded it like a weapon in Eric Ripert's direction on the Sichuan episode of Bourdain's Parts Unknown CNN show. But the brothy, dip-it-yourself stuff depicted in that episode is not the only style of hot pot. The "Chinese Dry Pot" offered at Sizzling Pot King (8058 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.) in the Convoy District deserves its moment too.
The main knock on hot pot is that ingredients lose individuality as they cook in the broth, giving up their distinctive flavors to the liquid resulting in a sameness to the dish. Dry pot is designed to address this shortcoming: Everything is cooked in a wok without broth. A bit of the fun and communality of classic hot pot is lost, but with a purpose in mind.
At Sizzling Pot King every dry pot dish starts with four vegetables: potato, cauliflower, celery and bean sprouts. It comes with four "flavors" (spicy, sour and spicy, numbing and spicy, and garlic) and spice levels ranging from mild to four alarm. Sizzling Pot King offers over 30 different protein options ranging from chicken or shrimp to bullfrog, duck head, pig stomach and beef tripe.
There's nothing wrong with sticking to the chicken nor with choosing to avoid the spicier options. Chicken with the garlic flavor is a tasty if not particularly adventurous choice. The cauliflower is a highlight in all Sizzling Pot King's dry pots, especially at the start. The garlic sauce captures the sweetness of the garlic itself as much as its pungency. However, if the purpose of dry pot is to avoid sameness, it didn't work. The oil in the wok performed the same function as the hot pot's broth resulting in a monotone dish.
The numbing and spicy flavor bullfrog was, perhaps, my favorite dry pot. This Sichuan ma la flavor is the most classic of dry pot styles. And yes, frog does taste somewhat like chicken. Of course, the Chinese are less averse to serving little pieces of protein with bones (that must come out) and, while this was a bit annoying, the tasty morsels of the frog were delicious. As that sterno burned down and the numbing spicy sauce headed toward nuclear, the result was almost a capsicum high.
Not everything worked quite as well. The catfish seemed to be more pin bones than flesh, the brisket was tough and the duck was just characterless. The "Spicy" flavor—apparently intended to be Hunan-style—was just spicy without a lot more to recommend it. It was monochromatic to start and only got more so as the ingredients boiled down in the oil. By the end of the sterno it was strictly adventure eating land.
There are other dishes at Sizzling Pot King. The house special bean curd sticks are a terrific Sichuan-style cold appetizer and the wonton in spicy sauce are excellent as well. Still, as a whole, the promise of dry pot was perhaps more than Sizzling Pot King could deliver. It is certainly worth a try, but perhaps not more than once.