As the calendar turns and fire season wanes, San Diegans are forced to reckon with the reality our weather can actually be cooler than “70 degrees and sunny.” That’s when the idea of tucking into a steaming pot of spicy broth begins to sound like a really good idea. Mada-Sao (4681 Convoy Street, Suite D) is a great place to do just that.
Mada-Sao is all about “chuan chuan xiang” (“fragrant skewers”) style hotpot. Instead of the more common styles involving a broth-filled communal pot into which each diner drops ingredients, one after another, at Mada-Sao diners select skewers of ingredients that arrive at the table in their own metal bowl of broth with either rice, cellophane or ramen noodles. It’s a classic Chinese street food brought into a Convoy District restaurant.
Picking skewers is the start of the fun. They’re arrayed in two deli cases preloaded with ingredients including meats, fish (or gluten) balls, offal, tofu, quail eggs, mushrooms, root vegetables as well as handfuls of various green vegetables. The proteins range from cuts of pork or chicken to tripe, livers, gizzards and duck tongues. I’m a huge fan of the tripe, which takes on the broth’s flavor along with their naturally toothsome texture. The duck tongues? Not so much.
But it is the malatang (spicy-numbing soup) broth that is the unambiguous star of Mada-Sao’s hotpot. At its essence are the flavors of Sichuan peppercorns and chilies along with a rich broth. It comes in various levels of spice from mild to nuclear. Frankly, though, if you get anything less than medium there’s probably no point in bothering getting any at all. It would be kind of like going to an amusement park and not getting on a single rollercoaster.
One of the distinct pleasures of the chuan chuan xiang style of hotpot is the way the flavors of the malatang broth permeate the skewered ingredients differentially as they sit in the broth simultaneously and from the beginning. Heavier, thicker ingredients like the meats absorb less of the flavor. The tofu and vegetables, though, take on those flavors intensely. Amongst my favorite skewers are the soy knots and yuba sheets, both of which get better the longer they sit in the malatang.
There’s more than hotpot at Mada-Sao. There are semi-regular “specials” like the dan dan noodles and a number of cold appetizers. Perhaps the best is the “husband-and-wife” beef featuring various beef parts, classically including tripe and lung, doused in Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil. On three trips it was the best version I’ve had in town (though on the fourth it was overly salty).
This isn’t the first go ‘round for the Mada-Sao team. From 2017 to 2018 they ran a restaurant on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard west of the 805 called Sister Ma’s Kitchen and sometimes Private Kitchen (the staff occasionally referred to it as “Ma Da-Sao,” the Chinese translation of “Sister Ma’s Kitchen”) before disappearing. Hopefully this version stays around a little longer given its far better location.