Bay Area Eats: Wuji Ma La Hot Pot
On a chill winter night, there may be no better food in the world than hot pot. You sit, you order, and within minutes, a cauldron of flavorful broth is brought to your table, along with generous platters of meats, innards, seafood, and vegetables. The pot sits on a low flame, bubbling merrily throughout the meal, and you get to decide how and when you'd like your food - tossing in some napa cabbage first so it simmers over the course of the meal to a melt-in-the-mouth tenderness, sliding a plate of shrimp in so the broth takes on a delicious, oceanic brineyness, and giving some thinly-sliced lamb a quick, five-second swish in the broth before dipping in hot sauce enroute to your mouth.
Some people believe the whole point of hot pot is the communal dining experience - everybody shares a pot placed in the middle of the table and much merriment ensues. Picky eaters and germ-a-phobes will be relieved to know that at Wuji, you get a mini cauldron to yourself. Crucially, this means you get to specify how spicy you'd like your broth to be on a scale from 0.5 to 5 - which is great because while some people like it mouth-numbingly hot, others (me) like to be able to taste their food. And if you're thinking "Bah, I can take the heat," allow me to introduce the Taiwanese concept of Ma La. Ma means "to numb" and this is achieved by the use of Szechuan peppercorns. Szechuan peppers are not spicy in the way that chile peppers are spicy - they do not cause a burning sensation in your mouth. Rather, they leave a tingly numbness on your lips and tongue. La means "spicy" - chile pepper spicy - and here, is brought about by the liberal use of chile oil.
Order a Wei La pot and you will get spice level 0.5 - which, I assure you, is plenty spicy. Specify a spice level of 2, and you'll find yourself reaching for your friends' water glasses. Specify a spice level of 3, and this is what you get: a pot so drenched in chile oil that you can barely make out the broth beneath. Every morsel of food that you dip in and pick out gets a thorough coating of the hot stuff, and you will be begging the waiter for milk to quench the fire.
The broth at Wuji is rich and flavorful, milky with bone marrow (not coconut milk as some Yelpers strangely claim) and animal goodness. You pick from a variety of meats (lamb, beef, chicken, shrimp, beef tendon, stewed tripe, pig intestines, fishballs) and non-meats (shrooms, tofu, corn, leafy greens, glass noodles). What impressed me about Wuji was their use of non-treated, head-on shrimp. If this makes no sense to you, I feel compelled to share: almost all shrimp in the US have been treated with phosphates. This directly affects the way they taste and how much they cost. When shrimp are treated, they are leached of their natural sweetness and gain a significant percentage of their final selling weight - bad news for consumers who suffer the double whammy of having to pay more for an artificially heavier and inferior tasting product, good news for sellers who don't care.
If you have ever bought headless shrimp, then you have most definitely encountered the treated variety. This is because shrimp with their heads intact gain only one percent of their body weight when treated - too skimpy a gain for the shrimp processing people to bother treating them. Another check would be to look for signs of a healthy red blush on the shrimp heads - treated shrimp have no such coyness.
At Wuji, the shrimp taste sweetly of the ocean. Ringing in at a grand total of $14 for their priciest pot, you're not going to get Kobe beef. But what you do get is fresh and way more than decent for the price. The broth is delicious (especially by the end of the meal), and you know that an eatery that cares enough to source and serve untreated shrimp isn't cutting corners.
Beware: the eatery is cash-only and probably won't seat more than 25 diners. View their menu here.
Wuji Mala House
1715 Lundy Ave #100, San Jose CA 95131