Everything old is new again. Mongolian BBQ, which was very trendy in the mid-90s in NYC, seems to have been reborn as the now trending Dry Hot Pot. Both meals involve selecting meats, vegetables, tofu products and noodles from a menu and then the selected ingredients being flash cooked in a sauce on an incredibly hot surface – for Mongolian BBQ it was a flat circular grill and for dry hot pot it is a wok. With Mongolian BBQ you had a choice of sauces that would be mixed in with the ingredients, while dry hot pot is cooked with a sauce made of Sichuan spices and peppers. While dry hot pot is a traditional Sichuan dish, Mongolian BBQ has no actual cultural connection to Mongolia, it was invented in Taiwan by a Chinese refugee from Mao’s revolution.
My first dry hot pot experience was at MaLa Project, which is named for the traditional Sichuan dry hot pot sauce and means “numbing” and “spicy”. MaLa Project’s menu presents you with with a huge array of meat options, including cuts from the stomach, intestine and artery, and a large array of vegetable hot pot options. I went all vegetarian that night and was able to choose ingredients from a wide range of mushrooms, greens, starches and tofus. You have a choice of Non-spicy, Mild, Spicy, or Super Spicy and as a guide the spicy peanuts they serve at happy hour have a spice-level that is mid-way between the Mild and Spicy dry hot pot. We went with Mild, but still got some of the spicy and numbing effect in a quite flavorful sauce. I recommend the taro root, which had been coated in flour or corn starch and then crispy fried, and I really enjoyed the five spice firm tofu.
The Dumplings: MaLa Project serves an interesting array of appetizers, rice and dim sum dishes including pork and vegetable dumplings that can be cooked fried or steamed. The fried vegetable dumplings are ping pong ball size and come six to an order. I really enjoyed the texture and mouth feel of the wrappers, which were just thick enough that when pan-fried the outer surface was crispy but the inner dough was still slightly chewy. The dumplings were filled with cabbage and pieces of five spice pressed tofu which gave the filling an interesting flavor and contrasting texture. The downside of these dumpling though, was that they were greasy and I could taste too much of the fry oil.
The Dipping Sauce: we were served a sweetened soy based dipping sauce in a tiny to-go plastic cup that was too small to dip the dumplings in. It was annoying.
The Location: MaLa Project has locations in mid-town and the East Village. We hit the East Village location, which is on 1st avenue between 7th and 8th avenue.