Lots of ink is spilled in the food press about food recently arrived from diverse regions of China, introducing ingredients that become instantly faddish. The furor over mixian rice noodles from Yunnan is an example. But I bet the largest number of Chinese restaurants to have appeared over the last few years have been hot pots. Indeed, I count 21 restaurants devoted to them on an online map of Flushing — just one hot pot hotspot neighborhood. Several of these restaurants represent large franchises lately arrived from China.
Why the hot pot? It is quintessentially a group activity, encouraging friends and family to sit around the bubbling pot and participate together. And the meal is infinitely customizable, with a choice of broths, raw ingredients, and dipping sauces formulated from dozens of choices. This means that whatever the preferences of your dining companions, whether vegetarian, pescatarian, or the meat obsessed, they can all be satisfied. Plus, with an inherent interactive element, hot pot is pure fun.
The latest to hit Flushing has caused a sensation, generating long lines. HaiDiLao is a globetrotting chain founded in 1994 by Sichuan native Zhang Yong that has grown to nearly 500 restaurants in 13 countries. While the prices are on par with other hot pots, the chain is famous for the extraneous services provided to customers and the orchestrated nature of its service, which may involve stuffed animals, humans in costumes, and meandering robots.
Diners must enter the restaurant from the rear courtyard of a new high-rise condo called Flushing Commons, one of the many new developments in the neighborhood. A uniformed employee enthusiastically greets customers at the door, and hands over a ticket that lists the size of your party and assigns a number. An estimated waiting time is quoted. I was discouraged by a massive waiting line when I went one weekend, so I resolved to return later on a weekday mid-afternoon, finding that I could be admitted with a 20-minute wait.
Take the slip of paper from the employee upstairs. The first thing you’ll see is a pair of plush massage chairs, one of which has an “Out of Order” sign affixed to it. Opposite is a playroom for small children filled with toys, but on a weekday, no kids were in there. Around the corner, find a counter stocked with free beverages, snacks, and souvenirs. The waiting room is furnished with small tables, as well as board games calculated to provide amusement. Beyond that, the restaurant posts two stations where staff perform hand massages.
As I sat amazed, since the place seemed more like an adult daycare than a restaurant, a figure dressed in a costume featuring a colorful mask from the Sichuan school of drama called bian lian popped out from behind a wall, waving and winking at the waiting customers. Beyond the portal from which he appeared, a pair of L-shaped dining rooms certainly must seat hundreds, mainly in booths that make the place seem like a WeWork office. Looking across the room, the tops of people’s heads can be seen bobbing.
When first sitting down, the server brings a small tablet that has many options pictured. There are a bewildering number of broths, which may be mixed in combination. While other chains usually provide two vats for broths, HaiDiLao has an option for up to four, which come in a compartmentalized vessel. On the negative side, perhaps, these broths entail additional charges, and my four set me back $21.92.
For ingredients, the menu had several set options with raw materials. These often entail several plates of plant and animal matter, but you can order items individually, as well. Somewhat bewildered by the plethora, I opted for the first combination listed, called double combo ($41.98).
First came the broth. The ones I selected — half designated as mild, half as spicy — included a multi-mushroom broth (“These mushrooms are specially gathered in Yunnan,” the waitress confided); and a particularly lively tomato broth made from “at least two tomatoes per serving,” she continued. In the spicy category, there was a chicken and Serrano pepper broth that the server said had been newly introduced, and an irresistible beef tallow broth that came with icebergs of solid beef fat floating on top till the tub heated up. This one was several degrees richer and more orange than any hot pot broth I’ve tasted before.
Then when the raw ingredients arrived, they came as three attractively arranged and decorated platters that barely fit on the table. The seafood selection on ice was mainly raw, and included tidbits of fish filet, several shrimp, bulbous baby squid, Dungeness crab legs, a couple of blue-lipped mussels, conch, and a cryptic crustacean often translated on northern Chinese menus as “arctic surf clams.”
A plate of raw beef was heavily marbled with fat. A vegetable platter was the least appealing, containing the rather ho-hum selection of napa cabbage, spinach, carrots, bok choy, and broccoli. (I’d hoped for more Chinese vegetables.)
The broth bobs with lots of solid material, too, so when you dump things in it, they can disappear. Multiply this by four broths, and you’d better keep a list of what you’ve dumped where. Overcooking as a result of losing track is a problem only with the seafood, but in the end it doesn’t matter. You are master of your destiny as you plunge, swish, and fish for your meal.
The broths are worth eating on their own, especially as they evolve, and at one point, a woman who described herself as a manager strode up and ladled out some tomato broth into a bowl, adding ground meat from the condiments bar. It was an exceedingly tasty soup on its own, faintly sweet and scented with cilantro. It made me wish for a toasted cheese sandwich. At another point, a waiter offered to make me her favorite dipping sauce and proclaimed, “It has 22 ingredients.” What she returned with the sauce, it tasted of peanut, soy sauce, and garlic, with herbs and seeds strewn on top.
The food mainly turned out excellent. The broths were more thoughtfully composed than at other hot pots I’ve tried, such that dipping sauces were often unnecessary, and the broths designated spicy contained significant quantities of whole Sichuan peppercorns.
But the service is perhaps the most noticeable difference in the experience from other hot pot restaurants. The waitstaff was generally an earnest bunch, making frequent appearances at table to perform tasks that might include peeling shrimp, mixing dipping sauces, and topping off the pots of bubbling broth. At one point, one waiter handed me an apron and offered to cover my backpack on the seat beside me with plastic, as I plunged headfirst into the meal. And the highlight of the meal was when — perhaps taking pity on me because I was dining alone while all the other tables were laughing and chattering as they ate — a waiter brought a stuffed toy who he called Mr. Tomato and propped him up opposite me in the booth.
The cost of my meal was $69.57, and the quantity of food was such that I could easily have invited one or two dining companions, rather than just thoroughly enjoying the meal with Mr. Tomato.