Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to East 8th Street in Manhattan for a dry pot buffet.
The Sichuan dry-pot pros at LaoMa Spicy (sometimes called LaoMa MaLaTang) opened a branch of their reasonably-priced, choose-your-own-adventure restaurants in Greenwich Village last October and, no real surprise, the place instantly became an NYU student hang. There are eight other LaoMas—the chainlet emerged from Flushing food courts in the mid-aughts, and has expanded as far as Gaithersburg—but this is the first in Manhattan. It's on a substantial chunk of real estate, too, with seating for about 60, so although it bustles at all times there's almost never a wait for a table.
Part of the appeal of the place is in the ordering process itself. Instead of choosing your dry pot ingredients from a long list on a printed menu (as you do, for example, at the excellent but more expensive MaLa Project), at LaoMa Spicy you go up to the long counter in the back where everything is on display. Your meats and seafood will cost you $12.99 a pound; vegetables are $10.99 for "a basket," so make sure you fill it up. The servers will cheerfully identify any ingredient for you; just ask.
Once you've made your selections, head back to your table and enjoy a large cup of lemon water while you wait. Your bowl of goodies will arrive, stir-fried in chili sauce, in speedy fashion. The tables, by the way, are roomy and comfortable, and the space itself is divided into several sections by screens and half-walls so it feels a lot more intimate that the long storefront on 8th Street would suggest. And solo diners are given high perches by the window, some of the best seats in the house.
There are other dishes on the LaoMa Spicy menu (I'll get to that in a second), but on your first visit, at least, you should join the 95% of other diners here and get the dry pot. Your choices are many and varied—approximately 30 different meats and fishes, and nearly that many in the vegetable and tofu section—but just to throw out a few that I have particularly enjoyed in the two massive bowls I've eaten here: the sea bass, the chewy tofu skin, the crisp wood-ear mushroom, the lamb (which comes in thin, fatty slices), the kidney and liver, the cabbage, and the spicy boiled crawfish which, as always, are kind of a pain in the ass to eat, but taste so good.
The consistently crowded dining room at LaoMa means there's a high turnover back at the "choosing counter," which in turn means the ingredients all seem perky and fresh. But it's not just the raw materials that make this dry pot so good. The kitchen crew clearly knows their way around a stir-fry, and most everything in your bowl feels like it spent the exact right amount time in the fire. Maybe even more important is LaoMa "secret" chili sauce, which both ties the dish together and complements the flavor and character of each individual part.
If you're not in the mood to make a lot of choices, there are set "Spicy Stews" on the menu as well, served with glass noodles in a dense broth. I enjoyed the generously portioned Meat Lover, which was basically five types of beef mixed in with a dozen different veggies. My chosen spice level here was a 4 out 5, which, while not too hot to actually eat, did cause some back-of-throat distress when slurping. Rounding out the menu are some good steamed dumplings, which provide a pleasantly doughy, vinegary counterpoint to all the chili.
It's easy to understand why LaoMa Spicy has been such a hit in this neighborhood. You can get a big bowl filled with lots of different things for a decent price, and whatever you can't finish (sorry, but you almost certainly will over-order), you can just bring home and eat later. Put it on your list of options in the area.
LaoMa Spicy is located at 58 East 8th Street between Broadway and University Place, and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (212-777-1661; laomamalatang.com)