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November 11, 2010

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Seek out a spot for great Sichuan hotpot

HOTPOT (huoguo in Chinese) boasts a history of more than 1,700 years, dating back to the early Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280). As the winter comes, hotpot is becoming one of the best choices.

In the early 1990s, hotpot restaurants such as Hong Chang Xing were normally in the traditional Beijing style with a tall pot and mutton ingredients.

Some people may have fond memories of one of Shanghai's first Sichuan hotpots, Xiao Xuan Feng Hotpot, that was established in the 1990s and offered tasty soups, various ingredients and special sauces.

It was the favorite of foreign visitors and local celebrities, and regarded as the start of Shanghai's booming hotpot business.

The first Xiao Xuan Feng was opened in 1994 on Yunnan Road Gourmet Street, with decorations featuring traditional Chinese elements, such as big red lanterns hanging from the eaves.

Unlike the Beijing-style hotpot whose soups are merely tasteless water with some simple flavoring, the soup in Xiao Xuan Feng has a taste of its own.

With chicken, pork, pig bones, various flavors, Chinese medicine materials such as danggui (Angelica Sinensis) and red dates, the secret soup takes more than 10 hours to cook.

When ingredients such as meat, seafood, vegetables and tofu are added, all the yummy tastes and nutrition are absorbed by the soup.

The restaurant soon became a success. A new branch was opened on the same road to allow for more customers.

Over two years, the expansion continued and two large branches were opened on Yongjia Road, originally named Route Herve de Sieyes, in the center of the former French concession near Xiangyang Road.

"It was a milestone for our restaurant," says general manager Zhang Zhiliang, who has been working in the restaurant since it began. "Xiao Xuan Feng became not only a must-go place for locals but also many visitors to Shanghai, as well as many celebrities."

Zhang recalls that during the restaurant's heyday in 2000 and 2001, the queue sometimes had more than 200 people waiting, an unbelievable achievement in Shanghai at the time.

However, as the old Chinese saying goes: "A flower, though beautiful, cannot retain its beauty for 100 days" (the good times don't last long), the decline of Xiao Xuan Feng in Shanghai was part of an inevitable trend.

With a boom in new hotpot restaurants offering modern concepts such as high-end and fashionable dining and healthy options, Xiao Xuan Feng has since lost ground in this battle.

Also due to other reasons such as poor management and increasing rental prices, the four restaurants on Yunnan Road and Yongjia Road were closed by 2006.

To survive in the struggling and fierce competition, Xiao Xuan Feng moved to Yangpu District in 2006, where it currently has its only restaurant in Shanghai on Meizhou Road, close to some residential neighborhoods.

"We feel very sad that the refulgence seems to have left us forever," says Zhang.

In the past five years, the restaurant has only been able to maintain ordinary business.

Some old customers are surprised to find their former favorite when they pass by.

"I thought Xiao Xuan Feng had disappeared in Shanghai, because I never knew that it is now in such a secret place," says Chen Qianyu, a frequent customer of the restaurant.

The disappearance of something doesn't necessarily mean its failure in quality.

In fact, today the Xiao Xuan Feng menu has more highlights.

Besides the classic hotpot soups in white (normal) and red (spicy), they have more choices featuring duck, mushrooms, fish heads and chicken.

"All of the soups can be prepared as a Yuanyang pot," says Zhang. Yuanyang here means the soup can be prepared as half normal and half spicy.

The traditional way to cook the hotpot soup is still kept.

Fresh mutton is only available in the upcoming winter time, and with its special sauce it shouldn't be missed.

One word of warning. It's best not to drink too much beer when you enjoy hotpot because they both contain high levels of purine, which can cause gout.

Xiao Xuan Feng (Sichuan hotpot)

Add: 758 Meizhou Rd (near Changyang Rd)

Tel: 6519-4439

How to get there: Metro Line 4 (Dalian Road Station)

Hong Chang Xing (traditional Beijing hotpot)

Address: 1 Yunnan Rd S.

Tel: 6328-1551


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