During my stay at Cornell’s Summer College in July, my Chinese roommate became homesick and wanted to eat real Chinese food. So, along with two other friends, my roommate and I scoured the Internet, looking for an Asian restaurant that was authentic, low-cost, and close to campus. As a vegetarian, I also wanted to make sure that there would be options available for me at the restaurant. Finally, we decided on De Tasty Hot Pot Restaurant, located on Eddy Street in Collegetown. I’d never heard of hot pot before, so I was excited to see what I was getting into.
While the store’s location is somewhat inconspicuous, tucked in the basement under Sangam Indian Restaurant, the restaurant is lively and well-furnished, and was reasonably occupied despite it being lunchtime on a weekday. Upon entering, we were greeted by a warm hostess who led us to our seats and explained that we could either choose to eat hot pot or à la carte dishes. She was extremely accommodating of my dietary restriction, and pointed out what her favorite vegetarian items were on both menus.
Hot pot is a unique East Asian dish that involves adding ingredients to a simmering communal pot of stock or broth. Hot pot restaurants have extensive menus, selling seafood, thinly sliced meat, vegetables or roots, and staples such as dumplings and noodles. Customers select items to boil, as well as the type of soup base to boil those items in. At De Tasty, individual pots of broth are brought to each customer and each is placed on a heated surface that is built into the table. The final part of hot pot is creating the mixing sauces for the boiled ingredients. A buffet with over a dozen sauces is located near the back of De Tasty, and customers mix their own dipping sauces according to their preference.
The first item to come out was a complimentary hot and sour soup for my two friends who had ordered main dishes from the menu. The soup, made with vegetable broth, included generous servings of wood ear mushrooms and tofu, as well as small pieces of egg. Both friends commented that the appetizer was perfectly salty, well-seasoned, and had the perfect consistency.
While my two friends ate their soups, my roommate and I went to the sauce station in the back to construct our dipping sauces. The first sauce consisted of two parts of peanut sauce, one part sesame sauce, a dash of sha cha (a traditional Chinese barbecue condiment), and equal portions of garlic and cilantro. This sauce was fairly mild, and was ideal for eating with meat, mushrooms, and tofu. The second sauce was far more flavorful, consisting primarily of soy sauce, with added red chili oil and cilantro for flavor. This sauce was very robust, and contrasted nicely with the milder vegetable ingredients.
By the time we assembled our sauces, our pots had arrived. Before adding ingredients, we each sampled our broth. Mine was surprisingly aromatic and had a very bold flavor despite being vegetarian. My roommate was also impressed with his chicken broth, liking the fact that it was meaty but not overpowering. I began by adding the dried tofu skins, which I had been told would take the longest to cook fully, while my roommate added thinly sliced beef to his pot. The beef cooked within a matter of seconds, and he ate it quickly, noting later that the meat was of very high quality.
Slowly, we added all of the ingredients and watched them simmer. My favorite ingredients were the rice cakes, which, when cooked, had a satisfying gelatinous texture and mild taste, and the potatoes, which turned a creamy and soft texture when completely cooked. My roommate, while enjoying his meat and seafood, was more excited to eat bok choy and other leafy vegetables, noting that two weeks of eating cafeteria food had left him longing to eat greens. On the other hand, we both had a tough time cooking the tofu skins. They took nearly our entire stay to become soft, and unfortunately, we ate most of them when they were undercooked.
The first main dish to come out was called fu qi fei pian. Known as a very traditional Sichuan dish, it consists of beef and beef tendon marinated in chili oil. My roommate, who had ordered it, recalled fond memories of eating this dish as a child. After trying the dish, he immediately noted that he loved the harsh spiciness of the dish, and he felt that all of the cuts of meat, even the tendons, were extremely tender. The second dish was kung pao chicken, a staple of American-Chinese cuisine. My friend who ordered it commented that the chicken was tender and cooked well, but also added that he was turned off slightly by the excessive amounts of peanuts and chilies that accompanied the chicken.
Lastly, my friends who were eating menu items ordered a shared dish of mapo doufu, a common Sichuan food that consists of tofu in a oily, spicy meat sauce. Our expectations were very high before it came; however, once it arrived, my friends were slightly disappointed. The sauce that the tofu was suspended in had very little meat or flavor, the dish lacked the numbing spice that is needed in Sichuan dishes, and there was very little beef in the sauce. The mapo doufu was an underwhelming end to an otherwise fulfilling meal.
Overall, I would recommend De Tasty to anybody looking to eat authentic Chinese food, whether with friends or alone. While I ended up having quite a pricey meal, hot pot is an especially good option for people going in large groups because the cost can be split. The experience of eating hot pot communally with friends is charming and gratifying, and one that I greatly enjoyed. Additionally, I would recommend De Tasty to anybody looking to explore Sichuan cuisine, as they offer numerous specialty dishes of quality that is unparalleled in Ithaca.