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In Cambridge, the hot pot packs plenty of heat and flavor

CAMBRIDGE — The first time a pot of Sichuan-style “mala” broth is placed before you, your eyes may grow wide. Firecracker-red chiles bob in a roiling soup dotted with peppercorns and a slick of chile oil. Restaurant veteran Eddy Hsia is accustomed to orienting guests to the dish. “Mala,” he explains, translates as “spicy and numbing” but it’s more than heat — it also denotes deliciousness.

Hsia, with business partner Jinhui Zou, opened Flame Szechuan Hot Pot & Sushi Restaurant two months ago. At this 85-seat eatery, on a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Central squares, hot pot is the star. You cook raw meats, vegetables, and noodles in a bubbling vessel, heated by a unit built into the table, then use a long-handled skimmer to fish out the morsels. Some guests expect the broth to be clear and delicate like Japanese shabu-shabu, but the mala style relies on robust spices in a long-simmered beef stock.

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The restaurant is located down a flight of stairs on the lower level of a concrete strip mall where the gluten-free bakery, Violette, used to be. The renovated space is done in battleship gray with black banquettes. Japanese anime murals cover the walls.

Hot pot ingredients can be ordered a la carte, but combinations (which include your choice of broth and noodles) make the decision easy. Surf-and-turf ($20) arrives as a platter of raw scallops, flounder, whole shrimp, squid, mussels, and curls of beef and lamb, enough for two, along with a dish of enoki mushrooms, turnip, a mini corn cob, and baby bok choy. We select the mala broth, which is quite spicy but full of flavor, and later learn we could have requested a duo of soups (like milder seafood or mushroom) presented in a pot divided down its middle. Only one skimmer is provided, so tablemates take turns serving.

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Yellowtail sushi ($5.50 for 2 pieces) and a spicy salmon roll ($5.95) are fine, but aren’t as impressive as dishes cooked by executive chef Dabo Wang, who was most recently at restaurants in Virginia. The mala spicy beef tendon ($8), a cold appetizer of translucent sinew and Chinese chives, glistens with chile oil infused with numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Mapo tofu ($9), firm soybean curd in a sweet-pungent chile sauce with fermented black beans, offers rustic satisfaction, as does a warming bowl of Sichuan beef noodle soup ($8.95).

The voluminous menu, which oddly includes pad Thai, offers hearty, rustic cumin beef ($15), stir-fried with bell peppers and jalapenos, as well as eggplant with spicy garlic sauce ($10), featuring chunks of aubergine rendered silky in hot oil. A special of mala crawfish ($15), freshwater crustaceans that you eat with your fingers, is spicy and excellent. You’ll go through a mound of paper napkins.

The place is still getting organized. One night we are seated at a banquette whose high back serves as a staging area for folded tray stands. They crash against the back of our booth every few minutes. The self-serve condiment bar, awkwardly squeezed into a corner, requires you to push past other diners. Things seem more serene at lunch, when just one server attends to us rather than the confusing parade of four who waited on us at dinner.

At the end of the meal, we’re eyeing the potent mala broth, still bubbling in its pot. You can drink it, says Hsia, but most people don’t because they are too full. Did they have too much to eat or did the chiles frighten them off?

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FLAME SZECHUAN HOT POT

& SUSHI RESTAURANT

1001 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-0080, www.flamehotpot.com.All major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers and soup $2-$10. Sushi rolls $4.95-$14.95. Hot pot combinations $12-$20. Noodle and rice dishes $6.95-$12.95. Meat and seafood $13-$20. Most entrees under $18.

Hours Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m., Sun noon to 10:30 p.m.

Liquor None

What to order Surf-and-turf hot pot with mala broth, spicy beef tendon, mapo tofu, Sichuan beef noodle soup.


Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.