The first thing you will notice at Chengdu Lao Zao, the new Sichuan hot pot restaurant in San Gabriel, is the smell: a unique odor that develops when gallons of oily broth are simmered with Sichuan peppercorns and generous mounds of red chile until the broth morphs into a seething, flame-red mass of liquid. Even after a brief visit the smell will seep into your hair and clothes, and I imagine that if you choose to eat at Chengdu Lao Zao on a regular basis you will be left permanently draped in an invisible cloak of peppercorn and spice.
Chengdu Lao Zao specializes in Chengdu-style hot pot, which distinguishes itself from other hot pot varieties through the use of “old oil” — oil simmered in beef tallow — and ample red chile, the latter of which can occupy as much as half of the volume of your pot. The resulting flavor profile, called ma la (numbing and hot), can be found in many dishes in Chengdu cooking, but ma la is best understood in its unadulterated glory at a hot pot restaurant.
You will remember your first Sichuan hot pot experience – I certainly remember mine, in Chengdu, where after just a few minutes of grappling with the liquid lava I was forced outside to sweat out a couple days' worth of water and contemplate life choices as peppercorn-induced numbness snuck its way up my jaw.
The discomfort was due not only to the formidable levels of spice, which could be attractive to a certain kind of person, but also because of the unusual quantity of oil. After cooking your meat in oil, you dip it in yet more oil, this time sesame oil from the sauce bar. Concern for your gallbladder is probably justified, and that's said from the perspective of someone who rarely thinks about his gallbladder.
The good news is that eating Sichuan hot pot, like many things in life, becomes much easier with practice. But if eating this food requires substantial physical training — not to mention a taste for slithery meats like goose intestines and spicy chicken hearts, which the Sichuanese agree have the best texture for hot pot — you're probably wondering why you would ever eat at Chengdu Lao Zao.
Maybe it’s because the glass noodles you pull out of that murky liquid, steaming hot and slick with oil and chile, are good enough to train for. Or maybe it’s because you want to understand why that family at the corner table looks so damn happy slurping pork brains. All you know is that swig of Tsingtao, intermingled with the ma and the la, never tasted so good.
Chengdu Lao Zao, 227 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. Most meat options under $10 per order.