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Hot Pot City

Last week's frigid blasts made it the perfect weather for hot pot. So off we went to Hot Pot City on Beltway 8 at Beechnut in Chinatown. At a basic level, hot pot is Chinese fondue: You order a "hot pot" of broth, which is kept simmering on your table, plus various types of fish, meats and vegetables to cook inside. We were admittedly torn on the debate between "this is awesome" and "I'm at a restaurant, but doing all the work myself," yet vowed to have a good time regardless; with 14 people at our table, there was certainly no room for whining.

Our group, which featured novices and experts alike, ordered three split pots so we could try all five broths: Mongolian, Thai, Japanese Shabu, Chinese Herbal and Vietnamese. While each broth had its merits, the spicy Mongolian and the more mellow Japanese Shabu emerged as the table favorites. Both were clean-tasting and well-seasoned, with opposite levels of heat.

A large group means a large order (wheeeee!), and this large group tried everything on the menu - except for the pig uterus, which was woefully forgotten. Poochie! Nevertheless, we managed to go all out: lamb, shrimp, beef, crab, fish, chicken, squid, tofu, spinach, mushrooms, noodles and more. The meat went teenager-quick, followed closely by the fish. Our hot pots stayed full as we lobbied for space among the broths. And we ate, and we ate, and we ate.

While hot pot is much cheaper than traditional fondue (ours came out to $13 per person), we have to conclude that food is just better when someone else makes it for you. Sure, the novelty is fun, but come on -- those salad bar concoctions never taste as good as they look. And hot pot is much the same. Paper-thin meats and fragile fish cook in record time; by the time we grew accustomed to the proper cooking method, the meal was over. But who cares? In the end, hot pot is about a group of friends sitting around a steaming dish of broth, talking, laughing, joking and sweating --and not caring about the weather, the economy or everyday stress.

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