DIY Chinese

Impress Hot Pot offers one of Tucson's most-interesting dining experiences—and one of its tastiest

There are plenty of Chinese restaurants in Tucson, but Impress Hot Pot is the first to bring the authentic Chinese hot-pot experience to town.

Situated in a small strip mall off of First Avenue, Impress Hot Pot is bright, clean and small, with maybe a dozen or so tables. On our lunch visit, it was fairly quiet, with just one other table occupied—but the restaurant was packed during our weeknight-dinner visit.

Hot pot is definitely a do-it-yourself adventure, and it should require a bib, at least for novices. Diners pick a soup-like liquid as a cooking base (house original $3.99; house spicy $3.99; half-and-half $4.99), and then select from about 30 items to cook in the broth. The house spicy comes in five spiciness levels, ranging from mild to what I assume must be insanely spicy, based on the medium that we tried.

During our first foray, Ted and I decided to try out the half-and-half broth, since we were both hot-pot virgins. Our server was kind and patient, explaining how the hot-pot experience works: The broth heats up on the burner at your table. You choose which goodies you want to cook, and the kitchen sends out plates of each, which then go into the broth to cook. The broth isn't for eating like a soup, though—it's just meant for cooking. Once the ingredients have reached the desired level of doneness, they're scooped out into tiny bowls and dipped into a custom dipping sauce, which each diner whips up at the sauce station.

We decided to keep it low-key on the first visit, on the suggestion of our server, and we went with the lamb and beef platter ($6.95), the mushroom platter ($4.50), napa cabbage ($2.50) and glass noodles ($2.50). The lamb and beef were both sliced super-thin, and cooked down very small—almost getting lost in the broth, and becoming overcooked very quickly. The mushroom platter was impressive, featuring generous amounts of enoki, oyster, wood ear and shiitake mushrooms.

The half-and-half broth is presented beautifully. The spicy side features a generous amount of dried chiles, chili oil and a whole cocktail of other spices that I couldn't figure out. However, we both preferred the house original broth over the spicy; instead, we made our dipping sauces spicy to get that added kick of flavor.

The dipping-sauce station is really where you can customize your hot-pot experience, by mixing together any (or all) of the flavors: chopped garlic, fresh ground ginger root, chopped scallions, cilantro leaves, leek-flower sauce, fermented bean curd, sesame oil, chili oil, spicy chili paste, satay sauce, peanut-butter sauce and sesame sauce.

We decided to be more adventurous during our second hot-pot visit; we also checked out some of the non-hot-pot offerings, many of which are not for the faint of palate. Those fully cooked dishes from the kitchen include hot dishes such as egg fried rice ($6) and pork pot stickers ($4); and cold dishes like wood-ear mushrooms in onion oil ($4.95), tofu with preserved eggs ($4.95), chicken feet with pickled peppers ($6.95), sliced beef and ox tongue in chili sauce ($7.95), beef tripe in spicy oil ($7.95) and chilled jellyfish ($9.95).

I couldn't resist trying the wood-ear mushrooms, jellyfish and tongue plates, and all were incredible. The mushrooms were lightly warmed and had a nice woodsy flavor, highlighted with just a hint of onion. The tongue, served cold, was tossed in a spicy, viscous sauce, and had a wonderful, deep, beefy flavor. The jellyfish—my first foray into eating the gelatinous sea creature—was nothing like I expected. It was firm, not at all slimy, and had a distinct flavor, though it tasted more like a vegetable than a protein. It was tossed in a light sauce that hinted at sesame and soy, which complemented the jellyfish flavor nicely, without being overwhelming.

For the hot pot, we went with the house original broth, loaded with rice cakes ($2.50), clams ($5.95), calamari ($5.95), winter melon ($2.50) and kelp knots ($2.50). The rice cakes were different than I expected—cooked rice had been ground into a paste before being compressed into a roll and sliced—but were tasty and held up well to cooking. The winter melon added a slight sweetness, which was refreshing, and the calamari rolls weren't too chewy. Our only complaint was that a few of the clams were a bit sandy.

Though I'm not generally a fan of paying to cook my own food in restaurants, Impress Hot Pot was, well, impressive. The dining experience was entertaining and enjoyable, and would be a great option for a large group; the flavors are authentic and delicious; and the opportunity to step outside of one's comfort zone to try new and unusual dishes was most welcome.

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