The first time I visited Manhattan’s new lunar landing-themed hot pot restaurant, it felt like walking into a house party whose host wouldn’t pay for Spotify Premium. I was carrying a bodega bag of loose Sapporo beers — I excused myself after discovering the restaurant was BYOB — and a house remix of the 2013 indie rock sensation “Sweater Weather” was playing over the speakers. We heard it again as our broth started to foam and bubble, and a third time before we paid our check using an iPad.
Three Hot Pot & BBQ, a sibling to ER Hot Pot two blocks south, opened at 18 W. 38th Street, near Fifth Avenue, in February, livening up a staid stretch of Midtown that’s home to the historic Keens Steakhouse and bickering Chinese restaurants Cafe China and Chili. It’s the latest arrival in a crowded scene of Chinese hot pot restaurants that have differentiated themselves by also serving Korean barbecue from the same table, usually in an all-you-can-eat setting for about the price of a seven-day unlimited Metrocard.
99 Favor Taste, which operates a handful of outposts across Manhattan and Brooklyn, still charges under $40 for its all-you-can-eat hot pot and barbecue, while Hometown Hotpot & BBQ on Grand Street in Chinatown, offers a similar treatment for about $10 more. KPOT, a Korean restaurant chain that recently touched down in Downtown Brooklyn, must rank among the cheapest in the city, at $36 per person.
Three Hot Pot isn’t cheap, but it sets itself apart in other ways. The menu is a la carte, with a noticeable improvement in ingredient quality and cost. (Over two meals, dinner came out to about $75 per person, including tax, tip, dessert, and a gut-busting spread of rolled meats, raw seafood, noodles, and vegetables.)
Start by unlocking the iPad waiting on your table. In most restaurants, the devices are used to subdue small children, subjecting nearby diners to reruns of Cocomelon and Paw Patrol. Here, it’s the only way to order. Soup bases come in the usual fashions: tomato, mushroom, pork bone, and a red beef broth bobbing with red chiles and peppercorns. One costs $20 for the table, and the pot can be divided into two flavors for free.
Placing an order can feel a bit like buying house supplies on Amazon, which is one reason your tab might end up higher than at other hot pot restaurants in town. The menu is a series of slides with photos of frog’s legs, goose intestines, baby octopus, ramen noodles, and prickly tripe. Swipe through, add to cart as you go, then check out. The haul comes out a few minutes later, spread out like surgeon’s tools on stainless steel trays.
There’s no guidance on cook times, or what’s meant for the grill versus the broth, but it’s hard to go wrong. On one visit, I chucked in a wad of noodles (one of the better deals here at $4), dried beancurd, and cabbage into the broth — and forgot about them as I rescued a slice of beef sputtering on the grill. Later, I dunked a piece of rolled lamb in the broth using chopsticks, then dipped it into a side of MSG powder.
For something unique to the restaurant, order the marbled beef. At $48, it’s the most expensive dish in the place and probably the most on-theme. Small rectangles of New Zealand beef are arranged in a circle on a metal tray. The dish is served on its side in a presentation that seems to defy gravity, but the beef doesn’t slip. (The fat acts as natural glue for the meat when it touches cold metal, according to a server.)
The setting is a dining room that more than one friend likened to Mars 2112, the science-fiction-themed Times Square restaurant that closed in 2012. The far wall resembles the surface of the moon, speckled with gray craters and neon letters that spell out the quote, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Beside it, an illuminated moon hangs from the ceiling like a chandelier.
Employees at the restaurant declined to comment on the theme... or the origins of the lifesize KAWS statue stationed near the register. They directed me instead to ER Hot Pot, the sibling restaurant located nearby. When I peered through the windows earlier this month, there were no signs of the moon, and not that many people. In a city overflowing with numbing red broth, is outer space the only place left to turn?
I doubled back to Three Hot Pot to confirm my suspicions. A crowd had started to gather out front and an online waitlist stretched into the double digits.
Three Hot Pot & BBQ is open from 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily.