Cooped up in Bordeaux for Confinement: Part II during autumn, the season that already makes me particularly homesick each year, I’ve been thinking about my last trip to the US in February. My annual visit to the Harvard Square T-Mobile for a temporary SIM card with a side of deliciously smiley American customer service. An action-packed visit to NYC with my mom and her guy spent popping Airborne for what may or may not have been undiagnosed COVID. A day spent with my best friend indulging in Taco Bell and martinis. An afternoon spent roasting in a sauna with my mom. A blissfully un-masked Bruins match with my dad and sister-in-law, a stop by The Coop to buy a Harvard keychain and replace a broken Harvard coffee mug. As always, it went by way too fast, and if I had known it would be my last time out of France for a year I’d probably have stayed an extra week or two at least. Before heading to the airport, I met my dad and sister-in-law for lunch at Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square for a farewell feast. I must admit that, while having had nodded knowingly any time my foodie friends would mention hot pot, the last time I had one was in the Nanhui District of Shanghai seven years ago and I had never actually indulged in one in the US. So I was nodding along when my dad, who is at this point much more in the loop with the Boston dining scene than I am, ordered the works.
Ying and yang, good and evil, original and spicy. A very large stainless steel pot arrived to the table, filled on one side with a creamy, rich stock made of beef and chicken bones, seasoned with garlic, ginger, ginseng, cardamom pods, dates, angelica root, codonopsis root, scallions and goji berries. A perfectly peaceful and calming liquid I imagine could cure any hangover, something I would consume as a soup or even a bottled beverage if that were socially acceptable. On the other side, a firecracker spicy red broth with tons of menacing Sichuan chilis and chili oil floating on the surface, peppercorns, scallions and longan.
From the meat list, we ordered their signature spring lamb, which came in delightfully thin shavings rolled up for an easy grab. This was delicious in the original broth, cooking through in less than a minute and maintaining a very delicate irony lamb flavor with an extra burst of seasoning from the liquid bath. Always wanting to out-do my dad in the “adventurous meats” department each time we dine together, I stubbornly chose the ox tongue as our second protein, which was a mistake. We should have gone with the USDA Choice Angus Beef. The ox tongue was fine, though quite chewy when steamed (as the menu description warned). I dunked this one mostly in the spicy broth, so the chilis could combat the slightly gamy flavor.
One of my favorite parts of the hot pot was the tofu combo platter, which contained delicate and slippery fresh tofu, a kind of porous and crunchy frozen tofu, chewy fried tofu, wrinkly and dense bean curd rolls and these kind of meaty bean curd sticks. Zero flavor but five such interesting and distinct textures, like a single blank canvas made from a variety of materials. When submerged into their steamy bath, these fellas soaked up the broths like a sponge, offering a great way to enjoy all the crazy ingredients (read: medicines) with which they were flavored.
While it’s not really about the noodles at Happy Lamb Hot Pot, we did choose two very different kinds. The chewy and thick udon noodles were great, especially in the fiery chili broth, which lent it plenty of flavor. We also chose glass noodles, which spread out like the strings of a cherub’s harp all over the creamy white broth, cooking through and becoming translucent within seconds. Nice, although these noodles were slightly difficult to gather and fish out, especially as they begin to stick to other ingredients. One of my favorite ingredients in there was the baby bok choy, whose green leaves wilted into a silky-smooth substance and whose stalks became very tender in the broth. Meanwhile, lotus root provided a starchy, hearty texture and was especially nice when cooked on the spicy side.
My biggest regret about this meal was not ordering the entire collection of mushrooms (enoki, oyster, king oyster, shiitake, wood ear). I think what we got was the king oyster sliced super thin and fanned out nicely on the plate. These cooked very quickly and provided a nice gummy texture to the hot pot. The mushrooms could have replaced the scallops, which weren’t that great. This is an indulgence better saved for the plancha with a hint of lemon. Here, they kind of got lost among the other ingredients, inevitably overcooking to the point of being quite tough and chewy.
I can’t imagine how we could have thought we’d still be hungry after all this, but we also ordered a side of lamb dumplings and kimchi for good measure. The kimchi was fantastic – crunchy, pungent, deviously fermented (man, I miss good kimchi…) The dumplings were great too, delicate little pillows stuffed with minced lamb, nicely seasoned.