Mongolian Hot Pot

It's so refreshing to find a place that isn't afraid to keep the heat in their Mongolian hot pot, spicy version. Here are two excellent places where you can test your tolerance.

I had Mongolian hot pot with a group of Houston Chowhounds at the wonderful Sichuan Cuisine (9114 Bellaire Boulevard). For a fixed price of around $15 a person, the table gets a big pot of broth with several cups of chiles, Sichuan peppers and other spices floating in it (refills are free). You pick and choose your ingredients from a checklist, which was a learning experience. There are some things that, if put in too soon, fall apart and make a complete mess of the soup. Other items are in the Bourdain realm -- chunks of dried blood, for example. Fortunately, we were able to keep some of our more adventurous eaters from adding the wackier stuff.

Another place, Mongolian Hot Pot and Grill, recently opened at 5901 Westheimer. Here, instead of a fixed price, you're charged by the items you want to add to your hot pot. The bargain is at lunchtime, when, for $10, you get a substantial assortment, and it's a great opportunity to discover what you like and don't like. I've been here five times now for lunch. I typically tell them to skip the fish, meatballs and fake crab and bring me extra greens.

Now here's a trick to handling a hot pot. It will come with two ladles. When it's first served, put your meats in to cook and eat first. Then, use the perforated ladle to remove the chiles, leaving a more manageable broth. Next, cook your greens and eat those. Do your glass noodles and mushrooms last.

Round up your friends who say they can handle "spicy" and test their mettle at one of these establishments.

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