In China, one of the more popular ways to dine out with friends is to hit a hot-pot restaurant. At these often raucous halls, you order a bubbling cauldron of broth — in Sichuan, it’ll be spicy; northerners tend to like milder lamb broth — and then dump in a progression of thin slices of fat-ribboned meat, vegetables and noodles. Once everything is cooked, you fish out a morsel with your chopsticks and dip it in a little garlic and sesame oil or maybe some sesame paste, eat it and then start all over. It’s an interactive experience like fondue, and a good way to while away several hours.
Tian Xia and his girlfriend, Jing Wang, moved to Colorado from Beijing five years ago to study at the University of Denver; hot pot is what they missed most about their homeland. So the duo decided to bring hot pot to Colorado, hoping to learn how to make the soup from cooks back home — no easy feat, given that broth recipes are usually closely guarded secrets. This summer, though, the pair managed to open the Bronze Empire, a Chinese restaurant centered on hot pot that also serves other iconic Chinese dishes (and ramen, thanks to a chef who once cooked at Sushi Den).
Tian recently sat down with us to chat about hot-pot history, how to eat the soup, and why you can’t find much regional Chinese cooking here in Colorado.
Westword: How did you end up owning a hot-pot restaurant in the middle of Denver?
Tian Xia: It was kind of my dream when I was a kid to be a cook. My parents are really typical Chinese parents, so they don’t think cooking is a good job. They wanted me to go to college and then business school. When we chose to open the restaurant, it was my dream come true. I love food. A few years ago, no one ate sushi or Korean barbecue here. But now people accept and love those things. I thought hot pot could be like that.
What’s been your experience with Chinese food here in Denver?
It’s a little disappointing. Most places have two menus. One is authentic, but it’s all in Chinese, and you have to speak and read Chinese to know what to order. Otherwise, you get American Chinese food. If we imagine the typical Chinese restaurant, it’s always a little old, with no service.
So how did that affect your plans for your restaurant?
I wanted to make my restaurant meet a different standard and to make the atmosphere American-friendly. This place was Red Coral before; that restaurant had a 33-year history. It was owned by a family, but they didn’t do a lot of changes over the years. A lot of the food was typical American Chinese food. When I first got the spot, I renovated it. I tried to make it comfortable. I take it really seriously how we present hot pot, how we sell hot pot, how we introduce it to American people and Colorado people. We are the first ones who just do hot pot. I know there are a few other restaurants that have it on the side menu, but that’s our specialty.
Talk to me a bit about the different kinds of hot pots in China.
The most popular version is Sichuan hot pot. The flavor is spicy, and they use a lot of beef tallow and Sichuan pepper in the broth. Beijing hot pot just uses boiled water with some garlic with big onions, and they use lamb to flavor the broth. The most important are the dipping sauces. For Sichuan, it’s cilantro, garlic and sesame oil. Sesame oil just cools down the meat and makes it less spicy. For Beijing hot pot, we use sesame sauce. It tastes good with lamb.
How did it become so popular in China?
Just like here, there are a lot of food trends in Beijing. Sichuan food got really popular fifteen years ago in Beijing. A whole street opened up with hot-pot places. And then there was the development of Hai Di Lao, a chain that has a really good reputation for hot pot, and for fabulous service. If you go in there, you always have to wait in line, but they have iPads that you can watch, and you can get your nails polished. Young people started to eat a lot of spicy food, so hot pot is like a normal meal. It’s really engaging and fun.
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How would you instruct a newcomer to eat hot pot?
People know French fondue; this is Chinese fondue. You order a flavor, like spicy or mushroom or tomato, plus broth. We bring the pot plus fresh meats and vegetables, and different flavors of dipping sauces. Some customers put everything in the pot, but you shouldn’t do that — some things will be overcooked. Eat the protein first. It has some fat; we use beef ribeye for the beautiful marble. It’s sliced really thin, so it cooks in no time and absorbs all the flavor. The protein gives the soup more flavor, and then you can eat veggies plus noodles.
Why do you think there is so little hot pot here? Or so little regional Chinese cooking in general?
It takes a lot of energy and guts to open a restaurant that uses authentic recipes. Everybody already knows kung pao chicken or sesame chicken. When we first opened, people who used to come to Red Coral came in and wanted to eat sesame chicken, and when we said we don’t have it, they’d leave. If I’m in California or New York, there are more Asians. You don’t need to worry that you don’t have enough guests to support the business — there are enough Asians to support the business. In Colorado, it’s different. That’s why other Chinese restaurants have a small menu for immigrants. The majority of their sales are to Americans. Some of the food is not really appetizing when you look at it. Americans like to eat fresh food. We use the wok to cook most of the food, so I think people imagine that it’s a little unhealthy.
How has Denver responded to hot pot?
We’ve had a lot of positive response. The Chinese community — or Asian community in general — have come to try our food, and the response is really positive. Then there’s a small percentage of people here that have lived in China, or traveled in China, or lived on the West or East Coast — and they’ve had a mostly positive response. Then we’ve had people who’ve never tried hot pot, and the servers teach them how to do it. After people try it, I never hear that people are not fond of it. It’s really tasty and a lot of fun.
Any Chinese restaurants here that you particularly like?
Shanghai Kitchen. They recently remodeled, and their Chinese menu has Shanghainese-style recipes. Golden Shanghai on Parker Road in Aurora. Star Kitchen for Cantonese cooking and dim sum. And Zoe Ma Ma. The lady is from Taiwan; she immigrated here forty years ago. The food is really simple — it’s more like Taiwanese street food. People love them.
The Bronze Empire is located at 1591 South Colorado Boulevard. Reach the restaurant at 720-550-7871 or thebronzeempire.com.