Hot pot restaurants built into Chongqing’s WW2 mountain bomb shelters create a unique dining experience combining two eras of the city’s long history.
Name: Old Brand Cave Space Hot Pot | Lao Zi Hao Dong Ting Huoguo | 老字号洞庭火锅
Where: Lianglukou, Chongqing, China
Location: 29.556540, 106.549492
What to do: Eat the signature dish in the
Getting there: Walkable from Lianglukou subway station Exit 7.
Cost: CNY 80 / 12.00 USD per person
Hidden away inside narrow mountain tunnels in Chongqing are gathering places for one of the city’s most popular pastimes: food. Which food? Ask any Chongqing-er their favorite food and their answer will undoubtedly be huoguo or “hot pot” I’ve always contended that this is a method of cooking rather than a kind of food, but no local will ever agree.
There are, of course, tens of thousands of hot pot restaurants (no less than 50,000) in the central city. However, very few of them elicit the unique combination of two distinct parts of Chongqing’s history as those hot pot restaurants occupying former bomb shelters.
The Story of Chongqing’s Bomb Shelter Hot Pot Restaurants
Chongqing’s Mountain Shelters
Chongqing played a unique role in World War Two during China’s battles in the Second Sino-Japanese War (referred to as locally as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression), serving as the capital-in-exile of the Chinese government when the east coast was conquered by the Japanese. This, of course, made it the target of numerous air raids by the Japanese from which the Chinese people, the army, and their supplies needed protection.
Enter the topography of the city. A common nickname of Chongqing is Shancheng (山城) or “Mountain City”, with rows of mountains winding along the Yangtze River and an elevated, rocky landscape running straight into the heart of the Yuzhong Peninsula, the center of the city. Today, tunnels forming subways, shopping centers, and even the world’s longest escalator cut through these mountains.
But, during World War Two, dozens to hundreds of tunnels and caves were cut into the mountains of Chongqing to serve as storage facilities, air-raid shelters, or even general homes for the people fearing for their lives in the acting capital of China. Of course, since the end of the war and the revitalization of the city, these spaces have been taken over by new owners and residents, who turn them into shops, storage spaces, mahjong (majiang) parlors, and even restaurants.
A Brief History of Chongqing Hot Pot
The popular tale of Chongqing hot pot (mala huoguo/麻辣火鍋) is that it began as a staple dish of Chongqing’s iconic bang-bang men. Today, this is a dying occupation, however, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, these dock porters were an integral part of the city’s infrastructure.
Chongqing’s strategic position at the meeting point between the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers led to it being an important inland shipping port for most of the city’s history. However, the riverbanks and the city center are also separated by the same steep topography, necessitating manual labor to bring goods to and from the city’s ports, which took the form of the bang-bang men.
As a means of cheaply feeding the large numbers of bang-bang porters, restaurants began cooking scraps of meat and vegetables in spicy oil laced with the region’s namesake Sichuan pepper (huajiao/花椒), infusing the food with the region’s staple numbing spice. And while this hot pot began as a staple of low-class cooking, is eventually gained popularity among the Chinese imperial nobility. Today, hot pot is found everywhere in Chongqing and neighboring Sichuan province and runs the whole gamut from cheap street-side snacks to upper-end gourmet hot pot restaurants.
Visiting One of Chongqing’s Bomb Shelter Hot Pot Restaurants
Welcome to Lao Zihao Dongting Hot Pot
Hot pot restaurants in Chongqing are a dime a dozen. In a baffling take on marketing, Chongqing business owners act on the principle that if an area has one kind of business — anything from salons to hardware stores to specialty restaurants — it means opportunity for more of exactly the same in the same spot. This means when you find one hot pot restaurant, ten others will be next door. The 1 kilometer stretch of road between my apartment and a former coworker had no less than 20 hot pot restaurants.
On top of their sheer quantity (or partly because of it) hot pot restaurants are often short-lived opening and closing with great frequency. Some have staying power, however, and ones with some unique character gain a reputation. One such is Lao Zhao Dong Ting Hot Pot (Old Brand Cave Space Hot Pot / 老字号洞庭火锅), which is built into the base of the mountain which rises up into Eling Park.
From the street, it doesn’t look like much, especially in the dark, the rock face is barely visible. However, once inside, a couple of careful steps will lead you down into a narrow tunnel smoothed out with tire and concrete and lined with a single row of tables. The tunnel leads deep into the rock and takes several sharp turns into branching rooms.
Hot pot restaurants are not the epitome of comfort and Dongting Hot pot is no exception. The tables are accompanied by short, wooden stools and at the center of each is a metal depression where the large pot of boiling oil is placed. Of course, all the tunnels are specially equipped with the obligatory ventilation system—without which the boiling oil and heat would make is small cave unbearable.
Ordering Hot Pot
Once seated, the process is simple enough, provided you or someone in your party has some passable knowledge of Chinese writing. We were presented with a standard menu in Chinese of all the items available. A quick number marked to indicate how many of any specific food items you want, and then select the kind of hot pot.
Most commonly, there is only a bowl of the signature spicy oil. However, some establishments will also offer a pot with a more traditional non-spicy chicken broth soup to cook in ass well. The two sides are separated by a metal divider in the hot pot so that the spicy side doesn’t make its way into the mild broth.
Once the food comes, it’s time to throw it in the pot. I’ve met some people who only cook items as they want to eat them and others who will simply toss everything in as soon as it arrives. I prefer the first method, as anything in the oil too long will become overcooked and, sometimes, too spicy to stomach.
To garnish to the items cooked in the spicy oil, locals use more oil. After a piece of meat or vegetable is pulled from the hot pot, it is dipped in a flavorless oil from a can provided to each individual, or a mixture made from this oil and several other ingredients at a table nearby. Some of these include garlic, salt, coriander, chives, sesame, and many more.
I would typically use soy sauce, garlic, and sesame paste mixed with a little oil. The combination offset some of the spice infused into the food.
By the end of the meal, you’re almost sure to either be full, tearing up from the spice, or both.
Overall, hot pot is a fun experience and once that should be had if you happen to visit Chongqing—or even if you happen to find a Chongqing or Sichuan hot pot restaurant in your own town. Although, local Chongqingers will be sure to let you know it’s not as good as in CQ.
How to Get to Chongqing’s Bomb Shelter Hot Pot Restaurants
GPS Coordinates: 29.556540, 106.549492
A taxi is the simplest way. The address in Chinese of Lao Zihao Dongting Hot Pot is:
重庆市渝中区中山三路149号 (view map)
When one refers to Lianglukou in Chongqing, it is one of the most confusing areas of the city to give directions for. The Lianglukou subway station is the intersection of 2 of the busiest line in the city and is built on several levels of elevation. These elevations are so disparate that Chongqing had to build the longest escalator in the world to connect them.
There are no fewer than 10 exits from the Lianglukou subway station. Lao Zihao Dongting Hot Pot is located at the top level on Zhongshan Third Road closest to Exits 1 and 7. Once you exit at street level, turn left and follow the sidewalk for 500 meters and crossing 4 roads.
bang-bang man (棒棒军)
Dock porter in Chongqing who uses a long bamboo stick to carry goods through the city’s steep landscape
“Morning Sky Gate” located at the tip of Chongqing’s Yuzhong Peninsula where the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers meet. It still serves as the city’s main commercial docks for Yangtze River cruises.
City in southwest China known for its mountainous landscape and spicy food
A method of cooking by boiling meats and vegetables in a boiling soup at the table. Chongqing’s famous variation uses a spicy oil incorporating Sichuan peppers for a spicy, numbing taste.
The Chinese name for hot pot
Subway station in central Chongqing where lines 1 and 6 meet
“Mountain City”, a popular nickname for the Chinese city of Chongqing.
The central and most historic district of Chongqing