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Photo by Rob Bartlett

Nine Spices Hotpot, featuring an all-you-can-eat conveyor-belt, is a chaos of flavors and textures 

A pretty mess

It's an awful mess indulging in hotpot, isn't it? There's the gurgling eruption of broth staining tables and coating spectacles with a sticky splatter; the inevitable spillage of food slipping through the chopsticks of even the most dexterous; and the disordered aftermath of plates, sauce bowls and spoons.

At MetroWest's Nine Spices Hotpot, a conveyor belt transporting plated ingredients from table to table makes the scene appear all the more muddled, but, in reality, the comestible-mover is a steady presence in this action-heavy room. Hell, scores of all-you-can-eat zealots eat it up, as did we. "Ooh, grab that plate of clams!"; "Lamb brisket's coming!"; "Wood ear mushrooms, anyone?" It all makes for a very stimulating and social eating experience, which is why most patrons opt for the $23.95 AYCE option. Those who don't particularly care for their ingredients to be paraded amid the pungent restaurant air, or to have their arms grazed by the passing whiskers of shrimp, ought to sit on the outside of the table and order one of the set options (which range from $11.95 for the vegetarian hotpot to $19.95 for the seafood hotpot; prices for beef, lamb, chicken and pork fall in between).

There's a colorful chart near the entrance that shows in excess of 50 pot-dunking ingredients, but first comes first: choosing your soup base. Six are offered – turnip-radish, bone, tomato, herbal, spicy and the "original," fashioned from beef and chicken. The spicy soup base definitely veers toward the infernal end of the pepper spectrum, and God forbid a displaced drop of it finds your cornea. Hotpot has its risks, but shield your eyes, cook your shrimp, keep your fingers away from the irradiated glass-top burner and you'll do just fine. As the broth heats up, head over to the condiment bar and spoon such saucy numbers as sesame sauce, satay paste, chili oil, red bean curd, leek flower sauce and, my fave – Sichuan-pickled veggies – into the provided bowls. (Note: It's a bit of a free-for-all with people advancing and backtracking through the bar, and some folks like to mix sauces and condiments under the sneeze guard, so contamination is pretty much a given.)

When the broth comes to a full boil, toss in root vegetables first, as they take longer to cook. Corn will give some of the lighter broths added flavor, while hearty leafy greens like bok choy and Chinese spinach will absorb the flavors of spicier broths. BTW: It'd be nice if Nine Spices offered a divided pot for more than one broth, but alas, no. I suppose that's what dining companions are for.

For the most part, the ingredients making their way around the restaurant are fresh (or fresh-ish) and we threw everything into our pots at one point or another – clams, shrimp, squid, fish balls, mussels, crab sticks and blue crab from the seafood options; beef brisket, lamb brisket, mini sausages, beef balls and beef tripe from the meats; wood ear mushrooms and seaweed knots for umami; sprouts and daikon for texture; and noodles – ramen, udon and sweet potato noodles. The idea is not to overwhelm the pot with ingredients (you don't want your meats and noodles overcooked), so go easy, but don't take too long – the all-you-can-eat option dictates you finish your meal in two hours or less.

Take any longer and you're liable to turn into one of the pumpkins they use as an ingredient.

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