WARM WINTERS WITH THE HUO GUO EXPERIENCE

The Chinese Huo Guo/Hotpot Experience from Casa Lafu located on Calle Flor Baja, 1, Madrid

In the spirit of Madrid and its new found route to cosmopolitanism, a new Chinese restaurant going by the name Casa Lafu, opened a few months back. Located in almost plain sight of Calle Gran Vía, just after Santo Domingo Metro Station, it is not to be missed.

Given the recent changes in weather, after months of a seemingly never ending summer, this restaurant brings a welcome winter warmer. That morning you woke up and realised you had to wrap up, surely left you with an “oh, this is new” feeling. This was when you realised you needed some hearty food. Those winter warmers that Mama used to make so well wouldn’t go amiss right now. At this point, MuchBites is here to tell you to look no further.

The draw of Casa Lafu certainly lies in their signature dish, the huo guo. Huo guo, which translates into hotpot in English, is a centuries-old favourite from Asia. The huo guo originated with the Mongolians and with time, it was adopted by other Oriental cultures. Huo guo consists of a metal dish filled with stock that is kept simmering at the centre of the table. Into this metal dish, diners add and cook their own food, depending on what their preferences are. When the Mongolians started, their favourites were beef, mutton and horse. However, when other cultures got in on the fun, seafood and leafy vegetables also got involved.

Brass Huo Guo
A traditional huo guo on display at Casa Lafu
At Casa Lafu, they serve the huo guo and other Chinese food favourites from the Szechuan province of China. The menu is varied and it might take you a century to decide. But, let’s focus on guiding you through the huo guo experience.

Upon sitting down, what you might not readily notice is that, under the white table cloth, in the middle of the table, there is your own built-in hot plate. This hot plate keeps your huo guo warm and is regulated by some controls found underneath one of the table’s edges. You can choose the temperature and this can go all the way up to boiling. This will come in handy depending on what you will be cooking.

First and foremost, at Casa Lafu,you have 3 types of huo guo to choose from – a simple pot with one stock, a combination pot with two types of stock and finally, a 9 compartment pot with one stock but all at different temperatures. The suggestion is to leave this last choice to the professionals. On our visit, we had the combination pot. The stocks are priced at 9€ for two people or 11€ for more than 2. There is a surcharge of 2€ with the combo pot.The stocks to choose from mostly have a chicken base and then are enhanced with red chillis, Szechuan pepper and rapeseed oil (depending on your choice). Other stock choices include oxtail, mushroom and white stock.

With our combination pot, we chose chicken stock with red chillis and some Szechuan pepper then the mild chicken stock with rapeseed oil. The red chilli stock was definitely a chilli one, and this was not even the spiciest option. If you like spicy, go for it. Do note, however, that the Szechuan pepper has an interesting effect on your tongue. It is particularly punchy but also numbs the tongue leaving a feeling behind that can only be described as menthol freshness on your face without the menthol. It is definitely one to try but one not to be repeated as the strong flavour can musk all the other flavours. So, choose your stock base carefully.

Huo guo combo pot
The combination pot with chilli Szechuan pepper stock
Having chosen your stock, each diner present has the option to choose their own sauce to accompany the rest of their meal. This will be served in a small bowl sufficient for an individual. The best choices by a mile would be the garlic and sesame sauce and the Szechuan spicy sauce. The price per sauce is 1.20€. With this, the huo guo basics are done.

After this, the rest is down to personal preference. Casa Lafu has a long list of ingredients you can have. Each portion is generous but our recommendation would be roughly two dishes per diner. This ensures that everyone will be well and truly fed. The price per ingredient varies, but these range from 3€ for the vegetable choices to 9€ for the meatier choices.To choose from include the typical thinly sliced beef, assortments of mushrooms, seaweed, tofu – smoked and otherwise, noodles, meatballs and cuttlefish. The list is endless, which means, unless you have an insatiable appetite, you will have to visit a million times to try everything. From the list, our favourites were the “porra” stuffed with fresh gambas paste, the mushrooms and the beef. To make your choices, all you do is go through the list and indicate what you want and the quantity, then give this to your waiter. This is great as you can really calculate your costs.

Huo guo Ingredients

Thinly sliced beef, seaweed and rice pasta
When everything comes, there is no set tactics of how to tackle this most traditional of meals. Some say you cook things one at a time, while others prefer everything in all together. I guess therein lies the fun of huo guo. One thing is sure, you will be at that table for a considerable few hours. When you do see the stock starting to run out, ask your waiter for a refill. Also, in the spirit of waste not, want not, towards the end, ask for some bowls to drink the stock. At this point, it will have reduced down into a nice concentrate of the original flavour plus the hodgepodge of everything else you had been putting in. Winter in Madrid has just received a huge upgrade, thanks to Casa Lafu.

Tofu Salad with 100 year old eggs

Away from huo guo, we did try other Szechuan Province delectables. The favourite by far were the dim sum selections. As a lover of dim sum, these would be highly recommended. We also enjoyed a cold Szechuan beef starter with mild hints of pepper which was jammed packed with flavours. We complimented these intense flavours with a tofu salad that was served with some 100 year old eggs. Legend has it, if you search hard enough, you will also find some 1000 year old eggs. We’ll leave the finding out about these aged eggs to you when you do decide to visit Casa Lafu.

CHINESE BEEF SALAD

Spicy cold beef salad with chill and pepper
As Casa Lafu is opened until 1:30am, we really took our time eating everything. Full to the brim, the only way acceptable to end the meal was with some Chinese tea. The white tea is highly recommended. But, especially noteworthy was the Pu-erh fermented red tea. This tea was discovered when in ancient times, the tea leaves were gathered in the mountains during the monsoon season. The tea was then transported to the city on mules, but upon arrival, the inclement weather left the tea fermented. To everyone’s surprise, the new flavour was much more preferred to the original flavour.

Ooohh, the stories that we could tell about ancient China!

Enjoy your visit to Casa Lafu.

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