Little Pepper Hot Pot has everything you could ask for in a restaurant whose raison dêtre is a communal repast that originated among the nomads of Mongolia, spread south from Beijing, and eventually ended up on the menus of some of New Yorks finest Sichuan restaurants. The mood is laid-back but festive; the service is of the friendly, crackerjack variety; and the portions are beyond super-size. True, a Mongolian nomad of the old school might raise an eyebrow over the idea of firing up the pot on a Mr. Induction tabletop burner rather than an open flame, but that does little to diminish the primordial thrill of cooking meat (and just about anything else) in a bubbling cauldron.
Unlike other places that tempt you with an all-you-can-eat hot-pot binge but with a time limit, this specialized offshoot of the Sichuan generalist Little Pepper, in College Point, offers a leisurely alternative. You choose from two soup basesSzechuan spicy or house original (non-spicy)or you can order a combination pot containing both broths in one bowl separated by a divider the way you might order a half-plain-half-pepperoni pizza at your neighborhood slice joint. (We endorse this last option.) The $24.95 hot pot comes with a bulging, all-inclusive-in-the-price platter of Napa cabbage, watercress, bean sprouts, wood-ear mushrooms, and corn on the cob cut into hot-pottable pieces, plus a bountiful plate of paper-thin slices of fat-streaked beef. This smorgasbord is placed next to your table on top of what looks like a folding TV-dinner tray. You dunk the morsels into the hot stock, scoop them out with tiny metal strainers the size of goldfish nets, dip them into a variety of sauces and condiments, gobble them down, and, in a brow-mopping, belt-loosening fervor, repeat ad infinitum. Its a lot of food. In fact, its enough food to feed a small Sichuan army. But hot-pot aficionados do not stop there. To do so would seem embarrassingly prudent, like a party of three ordering the steak-for-two at Peter Luger. The whole point of the endeavor, you see, is unbridled excess, which is why Little Pepper Hot Pots menu boasts 56 dunkable add-ons including everything from duck tongues to pork kidneys.
To help you navigate this possibly unfamiliar terrain, we submit these observations: Although the beef is included in the price of the broth and is pretty good, the fatty lamb is $6.95 and better. Especially when dipped into a viscous, fermented-tofu condiment the color of Heinz 57. Fish fillets (flounder of late) cook quickly; monitor them closely and dress them in that classic combo of soy and vinegar, with chopped scallions strewn on top. Spam does not benefit from hot-pot cooking whether it be Szechuan spicy or house non-spicy. Fish balls are spongier than the porky parsley meatballs. You cant go wrong with tofu in any of its many iterations, be it fried, fresh, or frozen. As for the condiments, which are arranged in a dedicated station, along with bowls and utensils, we recommend the bright-green chive sauce with just about everything. Slices of raw meat, pappardelle-size noodles, and bean-curd skin (or, as the menu has it, bean crud stick) have a tendency to furl in the broth and, when fished out with the strainer, can conceal a few lethal chiles, the way socks tend to vanish in the folds of a fitted sheet when you do your laundry. Better to dip them briefly with your chopsticks, etiquette be damned.
Broth is the essence of hot pot, and Little Pepper Hot Pots are delicious on their ownthe milky-white house style as smooth and rich as tonkotsu ramen broth, and its spicy companion roiling with red oil, chile peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, and slices of ginger. Hard as it may be to envision draining the pot, that time will come, and when it does, no matter how much youve devoured thus far, its worth ladling the now-super-seasoned remnants into a fresh bowl and sipping it like soup.
And thats hot pot: fondue for the chowhound set, shabu-shabu for trenchermen, and for a certain type of hard-core foodie, about as much fun as you can have in public without getting arrested.
Little Pepper Hot Pot
133-43 Roosevelt Ave., nr. Prince St., Flushing; 718-690-2206
Hours: Seven days, noon to midnight.
Prices: Hot pots including vegetables and beef are $24.95; add-ons, $1.95 to $7.95.
Ideal Meal: Combination Pot with supplemental sliced fatty lamb, fish fillet, parsley meatballs, bean crud stick, red sausage, and raw noodle.
Note: Dress in layers: At full capacity, the room with its steamed-over storefront window has the intimate feel of a Russian bathhouse.
Scratchpad: One star for the broth, one for the add-ons, another for the condiments, and one more for the profound sense of satiety.
*This article originally appeared in the December 17, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.