The bright red sticker on the table contains a message: "Beware of burns."
Is that a threat, or an invitation? Just another thing to ponder while you're trying to make sense of the menu at Tucson's newest Chinese restaurant, Yu Zi Wei. Before I was able to order, I spent a solid 20 minutes on my phone looking up various Chongqing chile dishes and sizzling "griddle" pots that I'd never heard of before.
If you're not into this sort of thing and prefer menus with familiar names and actual descriptions, Yu Zi Wei is not the restaurant for you. But if your love for interesting Chinese food outweighs your fear of getting metaphorically or physically burned, step right up! It's spicy fish time ...
The new restaurant opened this fall on Speedway near Tucson Boulevard, in the former home of the classic campus restaurant Szechuan Omei, which closed in 2016 after almost 40 years in business. The new joint feels like it's catering to a more specific clientele: Asian students who like to watch whole fishes boil in hot oil.
The Chongqing municipality of southwestern China where the owner is from shares a spicy flavor profile with the neighboring Sichuan region, which it was technically part of until 1997. Chongqing dishes make heavy use of numbing Sichuan peppercorns, dried chiles, raw garlic and crunchy peanuts. (Check out this in-depth Serious Eats article to learn more.)
You can taste many of these ingredients in the absurdly addictive chunky chile sauce that was piled onto each of our sliced pork belly, cold chicken and "jelly noodle" appetizers. (Just order one. It's a little repetitive if you get all three like I accidentally did. Although you'll have extra sauce to pour on everything in sight when you get home.)
But Chongqing is most well-known for its eclectic assortment of hot pots. It's home to the Chinese fondue you may have seen at midtown's Impress Hot Pot, where you dip various meats and vegetables into bubbling oil. But Yu Zi Wei specializes in the dry hot pots pictured up top, which they list on the menu as "griddle pots."
These selections are basically a smorgasbord of heavily spiced meats and Chinese veggies, piled onto a raised platter with a little flame built into the bottom. We got bone-in pork ribs, but they also have hot pots with chicken wings, shrimp, pork intestine and even cauliflower.
And then, as you'll notice immediately ... Every single table in this packed house is full of people diving into a massive fish hot pot, picking up sizzling lotus roots and divvying up the heads and tails.
You choose your cooking style (grilled or paper wrapped) and your choice of fish (three pounds of catfish or two pounds of "medaka") and then optional add-ons such as enoki mushrooms, yam noodles, bean curd sheets and more. They bring the whole show out to your table and plug it in so it starts to boil.
The fish thing is quite a commitment at $30+, and you have to really be in the mood for it. So after an exciting first visit of appetizers and dry pork ribs hot pot, I almost ended up skipping it altogether. But I returned on another night, and boy was I glad I gave the fish a chance.
Decorated with vibrant green cilantro and crushed peanuts, the spicy grilled medaka fish was one of the most exciting things I've eaten all year. Basically think of that water-boiled fish at China Szechwan and take it up to level three. The fish is equally as buttery, which is surprising considering you're pulling it apart yourself.
And you can kick up the potent broth with noodles and all sorts of delicious stuff like sliced potatoes. Eating the dish is an exercise in "what is food/what is not food." Are dried chiles food? How far can you dig into a fish head before you're being creepy? I don't pretend to be an expert. But I can say this: Eating is fun when you're sharing fishies with friends.
Other things to know about Yu Zi Wei: 1. They recently added noodles to the menu, and not just the "unique" jelly kind from the picture above. 2. The plugin at each table may look safe for a phone, but hot pots are lower voltage so don't even try, and 3. You may go to bed smelling like used cooking oil from all those smoky fish fumes, but that's what detergent is for!