So, it's not cold and drizzly outside anymore. At least for now. When that wonderous Seattle-esque weather returns, I'll be returning to Thai Spice (8282 Bellaire Boulevard) for more hot pot -- and I won't be ordering chicken this time.
The Thai Spice Express at the corner of Mary Bates and Bellaire is slightly different from its sister restaurants in town, and not just in name. The entire place was recently renovated and is now much more in keeping with the younger, chicer direction of many modern Chinatown establishments.
Then again, each Thai Spice location is a little different from the last. Unlike its more buffet-oriented sisters, Thai Spice Express offers Thai-style hot pot on its menu (and a dazzling array of baked goods, but that's a blog post for another day). The hot pot is confusingly not listed on the menu, however, so you'll have to ask for it. And when you do, be prepared to answer some questions.
Do you want it all spicy? All mild? Half and half? Chicken? Beef? Seafood? A combination thereof? We took six of one, half a dozen of another and ordered a pot with spicy on one side, mild on the other and a platter of mixed beef and chicken. Getting this out of the way right now: chicken is boring (and served rather unappetizingly in whole breast form). It adds nothing to the broth. Stick with beef or seafood here.
That aside, hot pot from a place with "express" in the name proved to be a time-consuming and utterly enjoyable way to spend an evening.
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On Twitter, I recently referred people who'd never eaten hot pot before to two old Eating Our Words posts on the subject: a look at Mongolian Hot Pot from Sichuan Cuisine and Mongolian Hot Pot & Grill by Jay Francis and a post on Hot Pot City by Ruthie Johnson. The best things to take away from these two posts is that while the communal cooking and eating styles may not vary from place to place, no two hot pots are created equal.
At Thai Spice Express, the "spicy" broth is the kind of punchy, aggressively-flavored broth that greets your tongue with a burn from the second you put a bite in your mouth. No slow burn, no graceful fire at back of the throat, no complex or subtly-developed flavors. This broth is an in-your-face young hooligan, and I like it. I eschewed the mild broth entirely in favor of this peppy upstart.
The richer, heavier beef proved to be an ideal counterpart -- the chicken was meek and overly yielding to the spicy broth -- and I found myself sad the moment that last paper-thin strip of ribeye left the plate and sank beneath the boiling liquid. After we'd eaten all the meat, in went the leafy green vegetables and out came the ladle to cook our noodles. At Thai Spice Express, you get two kinds: translucent glass noodles and heartier wheat noodles that look like a bird's nest on the plate.
Once the noodles and vegetables were cooked and consumed, my favorite part commenced: breaking the raw eggs into the meat-and-veggie-seasoned broth to create Thai hot pot eggdrop soup. I thought of Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, cracked the egg and deposited it into the pot with one hand and sat back to wait for that final triumphant bowl.