Xiao Si Chuan
736 Rte. 25A, Setauket
SERVICE: Sweet, but very little English spoken; dishes can arrive slowly when crowded.
AMBIENCE: Bright and no-frills
ESSENTIALS: Opens daily at 11 a.m., closing 9 p.m. Sunday, 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10:30 Friday and Saturday. Small parking lot; wheelchair accessible (though restrooms are tight for wheelchairs); credit cards accepted. The language barrier can be intense and the menu vague, so be patient.
In the Chinese megacity of Chongqing, hot pot is king. There are said to be 30,000-plus hot-pot restaurants in this epicenter of a tradition that stretches back more than 1,000 years.
At Xiao Si Chuan, which opened last winter in Setauket, the chefs are from Chongqing — and it took time for them to finesse their signature Sichuan broth, which has more than a dozen spices and takes days to create. Hence, the wait for hot pot here, at one of Long Island's only restaurants to serve it, was long and suspenseful: The heating elements at each table were cold for months, and the question “Do you have hot pot?” usually elicited the same answer: “This weekend.” Or, “Soon.”
Finally, a year after Xiao Si Chuan moved into a former burrito place (Mexican murals are still visible along the ceiling), heavy steam now rolls from urns of boiling broth and crimson oil at each table, as do aromatic waves of cardamom and cumin from the kitchen. While Chongqing's hot-pot tradition evolved from fishermen who cooked the offal of butchered animals in boiling river water, the modern take is less gruesome: You choose from various broths and chili-laced oils, then order items such as meat, seafood, noodles, mushrooms, tofu and greens to dredge through the broth with chopsticks. Comforting, communal and DIY all at once.
If you don’t know Mandarin, ordering in this bright, kinetic spot can be a challenge. Servers speak little English, and the menu is a multipage affair seguing from Sichuan and Chinese-American specialties (e.g., General Tso’s chicken — not why you’re here) to the hot-pot ingredients at the back. Googling can help, but the menu’s poetic turns of phrase (“coincidentally mixed cucumber” or “and Larry” are two gems) can leave one stumped.
Try and choose two broths, at least — a hot chili oil and a meat-based broth (usually duck or beef), which comes with goji berries floating about. These will arrive in a divided metal urn, which begins boiling furiously once the heating element underneath is plugged in.
A solid beginner’s spread is paper-thin rolls of beef or lamb, mushrooms — there are several to choose from, and they’re especially tasty cooked in chili oil — minty chrysanthemum leaves, noodles and maybe some shrimp balls. (The tofu we tried seemed aged and rubbery.)
On Xiao Si Chuan’s sideboard are bowls filled with sugar, garlic, chili, scallions and sesame paste. Combine these with squirts of soy sauce and vinegar to create your own dipping sauce — without one, the broth-blanched meats, especially, will taste kind of bland.
Beef and lamb will cook to droopy flaps almost immediately. As do the greens. The shrimp balls, which taste primarily starchy, arrive frozen and need longer to simmer, as do noodles. As you dip and dredge with chopsticks, you’ll gain a quick feel for cooking times.
If hot pot is not your thing, the stir-fries and noodles here pulse with personality and heat. Of the meat choices, cumin lamb is especially fantastic, luscious flaps of meat with bell peppers in a chili-based sauce whose heat is unwavering but never overwhelms. Of the peppery dry-pot dishes — the broth-less version of hot pot, with ingredients fried in chili oil — the adventurous might go for pig intestines in a seething cardamon-chili sauce with sliced lotus root and bell peppers; the chewy, slivered intestines exude an earthy, almost illicit flavor.
“Yibin burning” noodles do not burn at all — instead, they’re a powerfully flavorful, if salty, mass of fermented vegetables over what seems like spaghetti, showered with pulverized peanuts. Clear noodles — finger-width cuts nearly impossible to pick up with chopsticks — were less successful, the sauce sliding around rather than soaking in. Vegetarians might go for a velvety eggplant stir-fry; like many things, it comes slathered in that cardamom-flecked chili sauce. Similar flavors infuse super-tender spare ribs — these were unabashedly spicy — as well as a foot-long fried fresh-water fish with crackling, chili-oil slathered skin that, when peeled away, yields super-luscious flesh.
Many smaller dishes disappointed, whether bok choy and mushrooms in a gelatinous brown medium, gummy soup dumplings with overly salty broth, or a too-greasy scallion pancake. Pork dumplings were more poised.
Hot green tea is poured from an urn, but there is no alcohol at Xiao Si Chuan; some people bring their own and there’s a beverage store down the block. But the astringent green tea (hot or chilled) serves as a trusty palate cleanser for these bold flavors.