With the last blasts of cold air hitting Beijing this month, it's a fine time to try a lesser-known variation in the hot pot genre to wrap up the season. Here's a Korean specialty -- "Pork Spine Hot Pot" (脊骨锅). In concept, Pork Spine Hot Pot similar to its Chinese counterpart, Scorpion Hot Pot. In execution, this Korean version takes a pretty divergent approach and leaves diners with an altogether different experience.
The last time we went Korean, I wrote about this Wangjing restaurant that's almost impossible to find. Sorry about that. (Although, hey, the fried chicken is really worth the adventure, I promise). This time, this restaurant, I assure you, is much easier to find. Zhenliwei is located off a major intersection in Wangjing, on the third floor of the Botai International Shopping Center. Just take the escalators up and the door will be right in front of you.
The menu spans the gamut of well-known Korean dishes, but the first few pages are filled house specialties, chief amongst them is the Korean Pork Spine Hot Pot. This is what the restaurant is known for. According to the menu description, the dish contains vital vitamins and minerals to aid in relaxation and beautification. Very nice. Don't know if that's true or not but it is indeed delicious.
The broth is the highlight of Zhenliwei's Pork Spine Hot Pot. Although it may look like that red, rust-colored broth familiar to fans of Sichuan cuisine, it is so much more delicate. The red tinge manifests itself through a mild, smoky chilli flavor rather than that direct, face-melting sensation we're used to in Sichuan hot pot. The broth is surprisingly light with a mild miso flavor dominating the landscape. The broth makes the meal and, despite it's angry appearance, it's overall fairly light. I'm always taken aback after meals here. I expect the huge, overflowing piles of braised pork, bones, vegetables and mushrooms to send me into a quick and deep food coma, but the opposite is the case. Afterward, I tend to feel content without feeling weighed down; the chill is taken out of my bones and I'm ready to walk once more out into the brisk winter air.
Mode d'emploi: Once this towering pot is brought to the table (and be ready, it comes out fast), wait for the broth to come to a boil and start mixing in the vegetables. Some of the vegetables are already cooked and just need to sit in the broth for a short amount of time to soak up some of that fantastic flavor. As you dig in, be sure to start with some of the less hearty vegetables like tonghao and the fensi before they get too soggy. Stuff like the mushrooms can stand up a bit longer in the boil.
The pork, braised over a low, slow heat for a very long time, is ready once it is warmed through. The meat is light and sweet, falling effortlessly off the bone. It's juicy and tender. It takes no more than a poke with your chopstick to separate the meat from the bone. Treat any meat on a bone like you would an order of ribs: Don't be afraid to do what is necessary to get all of the pork and marrow goodness off of the bones!
While you gorge yourself on braised pork, vegetables and soup, make sure to leave a little room and ask for the fried rice -- this is phase two of the Korean hot pot experience. What happens is the remainder of your hot pot meat and veg is emptied into a separate dish for those still picking, leaving behind only the broth. Next into the pot goes a large helping of diced Kim-chi. It's brought to a simmer and steamed rice is added. Lastly, the rice is finished with chopped scallions, a bit of sesame oil and minced dried seaweed. The rice is patted down, the fire is turned off, and it's ready to go. The rice absorbs both the moisture and flavor of the soup and Kim-chi and offers a flavor quite unlike anything I've had before. Closest thing I can compare it to is like a Korean version of paella. I normally don't like fried rice, but I always find myself licking my bowl when this is put in front of me.
The traditional Korean side-dishes are complimentary. They tend to rotate, but this time one of my favorites made an appearance -- vegetables with Korean soybean paste dip. The other five were also nice, including a fresh Kim-chi, bean sprouts, Daikon Kim-chi and seaweed. I also recommend the Shuiqincai (拌水芹菜). It is extremely floral and fresh tasting. The leaves are a mix of the sweetness of basil and and freshness of cilantro. Despite its appearance, there was little to no heat to the dish; instead, it offered a nice bright contrast to the hot pot. But if you don't like very herbaceous dishes, skip it and take another cold dish instead.
The restaurant is fairly affordable. The large pot is only 160rmb and (pictured here) could feed 4-5 people (or 2-3 really hungry people). The fried rice comes out at 10rmb per bowl of rice (aim for 1 bowl per 2 people unless you want leftovers). There is also a seafood and pork version that also hits it out of the part and is only 240rmb (only available in large). The rest of the dishes on the menu are also great quality and good value. And of course, the beer, soju and makgeolli are all reasonably priced.
Grab a few friends and head over to stave off the last whispers of the Beijing winter…
Zhenliwei is at 3/F, Botai Guoji Plaza, Guangshun Beidajie. Map and at details at that link. It's open daily until 10pm.