Dining on a Shoestring: Uncle Liu’s

The Szechuan-style (read: spicy) hot pots at this Falls Church newcomer offer a DIY eating experience.

Chinese hot pots have caught on in New York and San Francisco, but they’ve been hard to find in this area. The hot-pot ritual lets you choose a broth, meats, and vegetables to dip in a pot simmering on the table. Think of it as Asian fondue.

In China, hot pots have regional differences, and the ones now served at Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot—opened six months ago by Hong Kong Palace owner Liu Chaosheng—are Szechuan style, known for its spiciness among other things. And while the dining room is plain, the food has enough personality to make up for it.

Tell the host you want the hot pot (soup base $6 to $8), and you’ll get an explanation of how it works. First, choose between the spicy broth—filled with hot, numbing ma la peppercorns and dried chilies—and the mild, which tastes like the base of an excellent chicken-noodle soup. Or go for the Half-and-Half, with spicy on one side, tame on the other.

The server then turns on the tabletop burner—there’s usually only one pot per table—and offers instructions about cooking times. You choose what to add to the pot and when, with each à la carte ingredient building the flavor of the boiling liquid.

Head to the sauce bar to create your own dips, and don’t be shy about asking for help. A server whipped up several sauces for us, and the one featuring cilantro, garlic, oyster sauce, soy, vinegar, and sesame oil was terrific.

Heaping baskets of watercress, spinach, and enoki mushrooms ($4.95)—all portioned for sharing—make good additions to the brew. Other favorites were succulent flounder ($6.95), rolls of thinly sliced beef ($6.95), meat dumplings ($3.95), and fried pork ($6.95). Thick rice noodles can be ordered to soak up all the flavor.

Bubble teas ($2.95) suffer from too-firm tapioca pearls, but their creaminess helps relieve the broth’s spice.

Don’t feel like a DIY meal? The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet is a deal ($8.25 weekdays, $10.95 weekends), with more than 40 dishes to choose from, though the offerings need to be refreshed more often.

This article appears in the September 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.