Shining Rainbow Restaurant, 209 Central Ave., Albany, 396-3881, shiningrainbow.com. Serving 11-10:30 Sun-Thu, 11-11 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Chinese and Japanese
Entrée price range: $7.50 (broccoli with garlic sauce) to $17 (Beijing duck)
Ambiance: small but comfortable
Szechuan hot pot, also called steamboat or shabu-shabu, also called any number of things according to the many cultures in which variants are found, is a social ritual. The only American version that comes to mind is the Wisconsin fish boil, although where the fish boil’s goal is to produce food as devoid of flavor as possible, that of the hot pot is not.
You’ll have to ask for the hot pot menu at Shining Rainbow. During my first visit, the only clue that this was an option came from the presence of an electric induction burner at our table. I ordered what purported to be a hot pot dish from the regular menu, but it turned out to be a rice-based compote. By my next visit, I was prepared. Although Astoria—Flushing, in particular—seems to be the hot pot center of the Northeast, Manhattan has its share of such restaurants, and I first encountered the phenomenon at a West Village eatery where I burned my face off in a delirium of meat- and veg-dipping.
A large container of some manner of soup (your choice) is placed on a burner at your table. The pot typically is divided so that two different soups may be sampled. If you’ve any sense of adventure at all, one of them will be afloat with pepper hulls and peppercorns. And as you consume it, you will have what amounts to a hallucinogenic experience as a relentless capsaicin assault teases out endorphins you never knew you had in you.
As diners, we frighten easily. That’s why Wisconsin is there. The beauty part of Szechuan hot pot, however, is that you have full temperature control over what you consume. To put it another way, you’ll have to practically beg the servers at Shining Rainbow to put the full-strength brew before you. I know this because it wasn’t placed before me. I learned only later that I had to specify. It’s not enough to order the Ma La Soup Pot ($10). Although it’s spicy even in its entry-level form, for it truly to live up to its name—“ma la” translates as “numbingly spicy”—you need to see those peppers swimming in there.
The other half of our hot pot was given over to plain old chicken broth. A vegetarian version and a peanut-scented satay broth also are available, and any one of these is $10. And it remains $10 when you order a combo pot with two flavors. Because that’s just getting you started. You’ll want some meat or noodles or veggies in there. Beef or lamb, crab or oysters, squid or shrimp run $8 apiece; fish balls, beef balls, octopus balls (really?) and otherwise undescribed meatballs are among the $6-apiece choices.
We ordered those meatballs anyway, and they were as unidentifiable as we anticipated. But the point is that they cooked in the simmering broth, a two-way flavor exchange. Likewise the Chinese broccoli ($4) and golden mushrooms ($4), the latter an array of tiny caps on long, thin stems, also known as enoki mushrooms.
How you cook and consume the components is up to you and your tablemates, which is part of the fun. You can fish them in the pot like fondue, or incorporate them into a bowl of soup, like, well, soup. Three condiments also are provided: hot pepper sauce, black bean sauce and peanut butter. Wisely recognize that you never know when you’ll need peanut butter.
About the abovementioned rice compote: It’s menu-listed as Hot Pot Rice, but it’s nothing like the soup just extolled. This is a traditional Hong Kong dish in which rice is steamed in a small clay pot, a long, slow process that cooks additional ingredients even as it gives the rice an appealing crust. Among the selections are salted meat, salted duck, beef, spare ribs and Chinese sausage, each $9. I chose the sausage, a strong-flavored link I’m familiar with from the Asian market—but in this context, the rice is an appropriate match.
The rest of the regular menu is extensive and supplemented by daily specials. Three dozen beef preparations are listed ($9-$14), and almost as many of chicken ($8-$13). To nobody’s surprise, my wife ordered a chicken dish—steamed, with ginger and scallions ($10)—and the fresh snap of that ginger sparkled through.
We also ordered steamed Chinese broccoli, an easygoing dish that satisfied my daughter’s wish to keep dinner from getting too meat-intensive.
The variety of the 73 seafood dishes will make your head spin, with offerings from soft-shell crab ($10 apiece) to an assortment in a bird’s nest ($16), with shrimp, scallop, squid (General Tso’s squid, anyone?), flounder, clams, sea bass and more. Pan fried noodles and noodle soups are available, many vegetarian dishes and even a long list of dim sum from which we sampled the roast pork bun ($3), two fluffy snowballs of dough with a core of savory meatstuff.
On-street parking was simple both times we visited; service is quick and cheerful, with fair warning if you order something that might take a while. But plan to spend a little time here when you visit—you’ll keep discovering more and more.