I had tried hot pot a few times before I actually went to China and liked it, but it was after my visit, and celebrating both Christmas and New Year's with hot pot and friends, that I was totally hooked. But I wasn't sure where to get it in Chicago. I tried the one at Lao Sze Chuan and was very disappointed*. Hot pot is an active eating experience, requiring effort and engagement. While it's a lot of fun with a big group, I think I actually prefer it with 2-3 people, because it makes things less chaotic. Basically, you get a giant pot of broth - or two different kinds of broth, one spicy one not - and then order yourself some things to cook in it. As an accompaniment, you get some sauces - generally, one is a salty peanut sauce, one is garlic oil, but sometimes there are others. Mandarin Kitchen has a third one that I couldn't figure out, vaguely fishy in flavor, not bad. The way to do it, in my opinion, is to spoon some of the peanut and garlic into your little bowl, then dunk your cooked goods in that and eat 'em. Delicious.
Mandarin Kitchen is a hot pot restaurant. The tables have built in burners. These people know what they're doing. There's a spicy and non-spicy broth option, and half-and-half on the pot is probably the way to go, though I think I like the non-spicy broth more. It's all-you-can-eat, whatever you want for $18. A fantastic deal. There's a bit of confusion on some things - if you order chinese broccoli, for instance, they bring cauliflower, but hey. I recommend some piles of sliced meats - they cook in like 3 seconds and are delicious, a bunch of vegetables (greens such as spinach and cilantro are especially wonderful), some bamboo, and some tofu - the dried bean curd is actually the best, in my opinion - plain tofu doesn't hold up as well in the cooking process. You can also get some dumplings to cook in there, which are great. Noodles are nice, but kind of a hassle to deal with.
One of the great things about it, to me, is that unlike a lot of Chinatown places, you leave full but not in a total coma (maybe I'm the only one who always overeats at chinese restaurants...). I think the food is pretty healthy - it certainly feels that way.
There's also an a la carte menu, curiously enough. Turns out it has some lovely dumplings on it that make for a very nice side snack. Next time, I might investigate some of the other appetizers too.
Overall, this place is the bomb. Delicious, affordable, and awesome. I wish I'd spent more of the winter there, but hot weather will not deter me from eating here often.
*It was overpriced and not that good. The broth was so-so, they seemed to discourage you from freestyle ordering the things you wanted and instead pushed you towards a massive plate of whatever they felt like, which is no fun, and the sauces were not so tasty. Really, no point in ordering it there - it's not their strong point, and when so much of their other stuff is so great, why bother?