The waitress at Hot Pot City on Beltway 8 at Beechnut brought two pots to our table and set them on the built-in burners. Each pot was divided down the center so it held two different kinds of broth. We sampled the spicy Mongolian and herbal Chinese broths in one pot and the Thai suki and Vietnamese lau in the other. We asked for the maximum "three peppers" heat level on the Mongolian, Thai and Vietnamese broths — the Chinese herbal wasn't spicy.
A big platter of vegetables including several kinds of cabbage and wood ear mushrooms came with dinner. The five of us also ordered the assorted meat and assorted fish platters. There was thinly sliced chicken, lamb and pork on the meat platter. The meat was sliced frozen, and it was still stiff. The seafood included squid, mussels, shrimp in the shell and catfish nuggets. We also got a plate of mi, or egg noodles.
The idea of a hot pot dinner is to add the ingredients to the simmering broth a little at a time and then fish them out and make yourself bowl after bowl of soup. Or you can just poach some meat from the broth and dunk it in dipping sauce.
Hot Pot City
8300 West Sam Houston Tollway, 832-328-3888.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Half and half soup base: $8.95
Lamb shoulder: $6.95
Assorted meat: $9.95
Meat Lovers: $23.95
Seafood platter: $10.95
Jenny Wang, the Houston food lover who organizes Chowhound events, served as our guide to the hot pot tradition. Wang's family owns two Houston-area Chinese restaurants.
She ordered a couple of bowls of dipping sauces, which came with a raw egg. Wang cracked the shell on the bowl and demonstrated the traditional technique of mixing a raw egg yolk into the Chinese barbecue sauce. "You can pour the white into the broth and make egg drop," she said.
"We hated hot pot dinners when we were kids," Wang told me. "It meant we had to sit around the table for at least two hours listening to the adults talk." I chuckled when she said it. My first visit to Hot Pot City was in the company of small children, and it didn't go very well. My second visit didn't work out either — the restaurant was closed.
I had called Wang and another friend and told them to meet me at Hot Pot City for lunch. When we got there, we discovered the restaurant is only open for dinner. At the time, I wondered why, but now I realize that hot pot is not a dish that's conducive to a quick lunch. It is, however, an excellent thing to eat on a chilly night when you have time to relax over dinner.
There is a Hot Pot City chain in California that advertises Taiwanese hot pot. I asked Jenny Wang if hot pot was a Chinese tradition. "Every Asian culture has their own variation on hot pot," she said. On its Web site, the Hot Pot City in Houston claims to serve all the Asian hot pot variations.
Vietnamese lau is a hot pot made with a hot and sour broth. This one was my favorite at Hot Pot City. It was particularly tasty, with red meat and mushrooms. The broth keeps getting better as you add more stuff. Jenny suggested we start with the meats since these add the most flavor to the broth.
Thai suki tastes sweeter than Vietnamese lau, but it's very spicy. I liked this one with the seafood. It reminded me of the famous Vietnamese soup with the catfish and pineapple, canh chua ca. I think the broth had a lot of lemongrass in it, too.
The Mongolian broth had a lot of bizarre stuff floating around in it. There was something that looked like a small walnut. We asked the waitress what it was, but she said she didn't know. We asked if she would inquire in the kitchen about the name of the spice, but she declined. "They don't know what it is either," she confided. We guessed it was a cardamom pod. I fished it out and gave it to Jay Francis, who was also eating with us. I told him to take it to a lab and have it analyzed. So far he has failed to report back.
The Chinese herbal broth was probably made with rare black chickens and would have cured the common cold. But I didn't have a cold. And the other three soups were so spicy, I couldn't really taste this one. We didn't do a very good job of eating our vegetables either. While the meats and seafood platters were wiped out, there was still a lot of cabbage on the platter when we left.
My first trip to Hot Pot City with the little kids was comic in retrospect. On that visit, we sampled an excellent appetizer of grilled lamb shoulder served on skewers with a dipping sauce. It was all downhill from there. It's not that the two toddlers in our group were bored — at least not at first. In fact, they were fascinated.
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A bubbling cauldron of soup is the center of attention at a hot pot dinner. Each pot comes with a ladle for soup and a slotted ladle for lifting things out of the soup. These are fitted with hooks so they hang on the rim of the pot. If you forget to set the hook, the ladle slips into the broth and you have to fish it out with your chopsticks. After watching us monkey around in the bubbling soup with ladles and chopsticks, the kids wanted to get into the act.
These particular toddlers are dim sum veterans. They are usually easily diverted at an Asian restaurant with dumplings or noodles. While eating, they amuse themselves by assaulting the foods with a combination of ceramic soup spoons and chopsticks — but not this time.
They wanted to probe the intriguing cauldron with whatever tools they could get their hands on, and there was nothing that could divert them. We ended up leaving the restaurant hungry after a couple of cursory bowls of soup, and I considered myself lucky not to be sitting in an emergency room with a scalded ankle-biter. Which is why I had to laugh when Jenny said she hated hot pot when she was a kid.
A hot pot dinner can be a wonderful winter treat. The steamy atmosphere, the hearty soups and the feeling of huddling around a fire with friends make it a nice way to spend a cold evening. But do the kids a favor: Call a babysitter, order them a pizza and leave them at home.