In Dining Reviews

Tucked away on the East Side, Huan Xi serves a suitably steamy supply of hot pot offerings.

Burning Through Brew City: Huan Xi's hot pot

Season's eatings! The weather may be getting colder, but Dining Month on OnMilwaukee is just cooking up, dishing out your winning picks in this year's Best of Dining poll. Dining Month is brought to you by Fein Brothers, your premier food service equipment and supply dealer in Wisconsin since 1929. Congratulations to all of the winners, and happy eating for all those who voted! See all the winners for the month so far here.

Milwaukee may not be known for its hot weather, but that doesn't mean that the Brew City can't bring the heat – namely from the kitchen. That's why Senior Developer Nick "Power Palate" Barth and Pop Culture Editor Matt "Powder Puff Palate" Mueller are on a journey, burning their buds and torching their tongues across town to find the city's spiciest dishes. Grab your fork and a fire extinguisher – this is Burning Through Brew City.

The next stop on their capsaicin-rich quest?

Hot pot

Huan Xi
2428 N. Murray Ave.
(414) 906-8888
huanximilwaukee.com

Broth's been a big deal on the East Side, with not one, not two, but now three fairly fresh ramen restaurants vying for your taste buds' attention. But we are not here this week to talk ramen (though maybe sometime soon *wink, wink, nudge, nudge, tease, tease*). We are here to hot pot – and to see just how hot it truly is.

That means we're headed to Huan Xi.

Taking the place of the Chinese restaurant Hop Sheng, Huan Xi originally opened up on 2428 N. Murray Ave., but it wasn't until just last year that the eatery moved into the space right next door at 2430 N. Murray Ave. and, most intriguingly, added a hot pot dining emphasis to its menu.

What is hot pot, you ask? In culinary idiot's terms – and judging by the empty bags of Cheez-Its and Tahitian Treat bottles littering my desk, I definitely qualify – it's basically Chinese fondue, a communal dining experience where you dunk various food items into a pool of boiling, delicious broth as opposed to a vat of gooey, melted cheese. Sometimes there's just one tub of broth to share among a dinner party (maybe split in half, if you're feeling adventurous and want to sample to two types) but in our case, each member of our group got our own little hot tub of steaming broth, all bubbling up in our own little stoves operated with an easy little switch.

And, of course, this being Burning Through Brew City, Nick and I got the spicy Szechuan option.

But the broth is only part of the equation. Then there are the actual ingredients you want to order and plop delightfully into your self-made soup – and my god, there are so many ingredients. For a first-time hot potter, it can be intimidating to see the giant list of options – from meat to veggies to mushrooms and fish and all sorts of delectable oddities and additions. And that's not even including the sauce station, where you can mix and match your own flavor sauces to dip your broth-boiled items.

My culinary Garmin was thankfully Nick, who dutifully explained the process to me (and several other OnMilwaukee brethren; that's right, other people signed up to see me torture my tongue for entertainment this week!) and helped us pick out some scrumptious dip-able delights, including heaping plates of thinly sliced fatty beef, lamb, potatoes, Ramen noodles, mushrooms, fish eggs, rolled-up lamb balls, shrimp dumplings, squid and much, much more.

What I'm trying to say is that it helps to have a tour guide for your first go-around, somebody who won't freak out when they see a bunch of seemingly random holes in your table, a little knob that goes up to five and a menu featuring most of creation as an option. And if you don't have a seasoned hot pot expert on hand? Well, then just pack a sense of adventure – and your vocal chords, because Huan Xi also features some cool karaoke rooms in the back for some post-supper singing of "Don't Stop Believing."

But I'm getting ahead of myself: Would we sing the praises of Huan Xi's Szechuan hot pot broth? Or merely singe ourselves on both the spicy soup and the table's burners?

Heat

Nick: The Szechuan spicy soup base is spicy but not overwhelming. The inclusion of Szechuan peppercorns numb your tongue, giving you an occasional break from the heat. The food cooked in the spicy broth won't come out blazing, but if you're sipping the broth alongside, you'll definitely feel a hotter burn as the meal progresses. Between that and the dipping sauces, this is a meal where you can really adjust the heat on your own.

Matt: Well, this was one of the odder flavor experiences I've had – and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

My first spoonful of the Szechuan broth just on its own was admittedly underwhelming, a little watery in terms of flavor and pretty damp in terms of heat too. After I starting putting meats and veggies into the soup, however, the spice and flavor began to pop – and in very peculiar ways.

There was a growing mild but marked simmer – playing with the ingredients boiled in the broth, both absorbing one another's flavors – but the real spice star was the Szechuan peppercorns, which weirdly knock out your tongue and give you a bizarre mix of heat and cooling at the same time your mouth. It's a completely unique experience – as well as weirdly inconsistent, with some spoonfuls still pretty tame on burn and others knocking you back with flavor.

In the end, for our mission, the heat – even when at full-blast – was pretty easy to outlast. But its bud-boggling numbing powers still certainly made an impact.

Longevity

Nick: The burn has a slow build-up but a quick drop off. No long-term mouth burn to be had here, but your stomach will be warmer longer if you finish the broth.

Matt: There's very little burn to begin with, but considering how much broth you get to start, gulping down the whole thing – and therefore its special brand of mouth-numbing heat – will take you a solid few hours. So that counts for something.

Flavor

Nick: There's no shortage of flavor here, especially given that you're making a dipping sauce (or two) to go with your meal. Want more heat? Get the house-fermented pepper sauce and a scoop of chili oil. If you're looking to balance the spice with some sweetness, there's hoisin at the ready. The sauce bar is stocked with everything you need – fermented bean paste, peanut butter, fish sauce, garlic, scallions, sriracha, soy sauce, you name it.

Matt: As noted in the heat section, the broth itself on its own is pretty unremarkable. But once you start dropping in meats and veggies, and making your own little custom soup, the flavor really starts to come alive – both in the boiled ingredients and in the broth itself. The more food items you put into your broth and the longer you let it boil, the thicker the soup becomes – and the more concentrated the spice and the flavor gets.

By the end of the meal, my once moderate broth has transformed, becoming a dark, thick, potent potion of deliciousness right before my eyes – and my drooling buds. I'm already looking ahead to my next visit to sample some other sauces and menu items, and make a new culinary concoction of mouth-watering weirdness.

Overall

Nick: In college, I waited tables in college at a Chinese restaurant, and hot pot was at the center of our yearly Chinese New Year employee dinner. I'm glad to see it's taking hold in America and that Huan Xi is leading Milwaukee's charge on it. Though not nearly the spiciest meal we've had on this tour, it was the most fun. I like family style, social meals for big groups, and hot pot is perfect for it – a great celebratory meal that comes with its own rituals and plenty of conversation.

Matt: As for as our search goes, the Szechuan broth base – with its odd mix of simmering heat and cooling numbness – is easily the strangest spice experience we've found so far. But it's far from the actual spiciest, barely causing a conniption even when your palate tackles several of the peppercorns in a spoonful. This is a very choose-your-own-adventure type meal, so you can sauce it up and dial up the spice factor decently – but the baseline is barely a burn and doesn't go all that higher from there.

But even if it was a killer heat, the spice factor at Huan Xi would still be second to the social factor. A hot pot dinner is such a wonderfully active and communal experience, everyone learning new things, trying new culinary combinations and sharing their discoveries with one another. It's a meal like few others – and better yet, my mouth survived completely unscathed (plus the steam from the boiling broth bowls really helped clean out my pores).

Burning Through Brew City heat index

  1. Jonny Hammers' Too Hot For A Normal Person wings
  2. Asian International Market's papaya salad
  3. Margarita Paradise's Diablo burrito
  4. Red Rock Saloon's TCB ghost pepper wings
  5. The King & I's Volcano Chicken
  6. Glorioso's Italian Market's Human Torch sandwich
  7. Hot Head Fried Chicken's Nashville hot chicken
  8. Huan Xi's hot pot
  9. All Things Jerky's Carolina Reaper beef jerky
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