“I can take it” is the mantra that I tell myself whenever a food challenge comes across my plate (pun intended!) – but I think I may have met my match at Hotluck, a crazy spicy Szechuan restaurant on Kingsway.
Having seen this place blogged about on Chowhound, I thought I could easily manage the spice level given that I didn’t even break a sweat in my previous forays in Szechuan cuisine… I can take it, afterall…
The staff at Hotluck were very nice, welcoming us immediately and offering us our choice of tables. They gave us menus and kept a keen eye on us in case we had any questions. We were intrigued by the Hotluck Pot Combo, which included quite a few dishes for a pretty amazing price of $33. A lot of food, maybe, but once again… I can take it!
First up was a very large bowl of soup. With a beef broth base, heavily seasoned with the herbs I normally associated with the medicinal Chinese soups, I found this soup just so-so. The veggies inside were pretty nicely cooked, not falling apart at all. This soup had nothing on the upcoming dishes…
The combo comes with two appetizers. I’m not exactly sure if they are pre-set appetizers, but we had to pay $1 to *not* get carrots 🙂 Instead, we chose the above – Szechuan Style Spicy Pea Curd – which is much more like a too-soft mung-bean noodle in spicy chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns. We picked this because it reminded us of the soft flat rice noodles of this same variety we had ordered in Guangzhou with my parents. I didn’t particularly like the soft texture of these noodle-like things – I’m not sure if this is how they supposed to be prepared, or if this was an overcooked batch??? (The internet is not helping me out with this one!) In any case, they didn’t have any flavour, and the chili was pretty one-dimensional: hot – but, I can take it!
The other appetizer, which I liked a lot more, was the Cucumbers with Garlic & Chili. Being precisely just these basic ingredients (plus chili oil, a bit of vinegar and maybe some cilantro), I found the sharp vinegar to be a nice contrast to the spiciness. You were tricked into thinking these were cooling because of the cukes – but no… this too were pretty spicy.
Now, for the main event, the Hotluck Pot itself came in a fiery red sauce in a giant bowl. The menu read that it includes squid (not present), chicken wings (yes, but cut latterally into segments), sausage/ham (no/yes), sliced pork/beef (yes/yes) and 4 kinds of vegetables (mostly cabbage, celery, some red pepper, black fungus, a few pieces of lotus – and chili must count as a veggie, right???) – oh, and they threw in some tripe for good measure I guess. At first I found the spiciness level enthralling – you got just enough of the flavour of the other ingredients behind that crazy wall of chili and peppers. The ham and cabbage were particularly good in this. I liked the texture of the tripe (super chewy & tender) and the lotus (crunchy, toothsome) in contrast to one another. But then I couldn’t taste anything other than the spices. I tried to eat some rice, drink some water, or even get that sour vinegar from the cucumbers to cut through it all – but no! Nothing but chili!
I gave up – I couldn’t take it! This dish beat me! I guess we could have ordered it with a less-spicy level (bravely/stupidly I thought “hot” was a good idea) – and I don’t doubt they toned it down for us too. The leftovers got packed up, and I gladly let Chris take them for lunches. I think the waitress was impressed by how well we did (or maybe I’m just telling myself that to make myself feel better about failing this challenge!)
So – my verdict? Hotluck is good, but just not for me! I think I prefer something just a little less spicy 🙂