By Thomas C. Pavlik, Jr.
Chinese hot pot is more than just a meal, its an experience and one thats done nicely by Hot Pot & BBQ Buffet. Hot pot originated in the Mongolian Empire and started out as a simple broth bought to boil in a helmet into which a soldier added horsemeat or mutton. Thankfully, hot pot has evolved. Today, hot pot involves your choice of broth (you may have more than one or even combine), which is brought to a boil at table and kept simmering, into which you and your group of friends add noodles, thinly sliced meats, vegetables, seafood and more. Once cooked, diners generally add a sauce of their own making from available ingredients. In many restaurants, one selects their desired items from a menu. Others, like Hot Pot & BBQ Buffet, offer everything buffet-style.
Hot Pot has a laminated instruction card that clearly outlines the steps and makes the process almost foolproof.
Hot Pots space, in the building formerly occupied by Kiku Japanese Steak & Seafood House, is simple and very clean. Each table or booth has two induction burners that can be controlled by diners. Asian barbecue is also available, which is cooked at the table. Diners opting for that genre will be seated under large industrial fans that suck up the smoke generated by barbecue. We decided to go with hot pot alone and leave the barbecue to another day.
We arrived a little before 6 p.m. (Hot Pot is not open for lunch other than Saturday) to find the restaurant filled with patrons whose native language appeared to be Mandarin. We took that as an excellent sign. As the night progressed (my guest and I lingered for multiple trips to the buffet for ingredients) the crowd seemed about evenly split between English and Mandarin speakers.
After we were seated, our server quickly checked in just to make sure that we knew the program and how everything worked. He had a nice way about him.
For our broths, we went with the spicy and the original broth. The original broth is quite tame and is basically a cloudy chicken broth with ginger and Asian aromatics. The spicy broth is a bold cauldron of Sichuan pepper corns, chilies and anything else that you might typically expect to season a Sichuanese dish. Although quite spicy, the Sichuan pepper corns tend to slightly numb the tongue and tastebuds such that it makes the heat more tolerable. To me, its the flavor of Southern China that I so often crave.
Perhaps the most fun was creating our own dipping sauces. Ive been doing hot pot for years, and I went with my usual combination of soy, sesame oil, oyster sauce, chili paste, chili oil, cilantro and some fresh peppers. My guest, who was enjoying his first hot pot experience, followed his tastebuds and made an exceptional sauce that surpassed mine. It might have been first time luck or the addition of fresh garlic.
Other than a section of the buffet that is reserved for barbecue, all other items are available for hot pot. There is a section of very thinly sliced lamb and beef that is kept frozen, a variety of seafood (mussels, shrimp, squid, fish balls, clams), and a large selection of vegetables ranging from leafy greens to onions and mushrooms. And dont forget the tofu. Simply said, there are too many ingredients to choose from.
My guest and I gravitated toward the meats, shrimp, clams, noodles and a smattering of vegetables. The baby squid was a particular hit. The one thing we wish Hot Pot had more of were noodles only ramen noodles were available. Hot pot is not a fast meal, which is why when Hot Pot is crowded, diners are limited to two hours, which seems just the right amount of time.
The hot pot alone is $29.95 per person. At this price it might not be a place where you dine weekly, but my guest and I both felt we received fair value for the offerings. Diners can add barbecue for an additional $6.
Service was uniformly excellent, and our used plates were quickly whisked away and replaced with new ones. Hot pot is likely a new experience for many in Springfield. But its a fun experience that is very user-friendly and can be continually customized as the meal progresses. We both hope that Springfield embraces Hot Pot & BBQ Buffet, as it would be a shame to lose this gem.