Hotpot is a Chinese form of dining enabling foodies to eat products at its freshest peak. At a hotpot restaurant, there’s a personal glass top stove, a small pot and seasoned broth. The point is for one to cook various raw proteins or veggies, eating the moment their food is finished cooking. Most Chinese know about the concept of hotpot, and so too others in bigger cities. But in Toledo, Ohio, this form of hands-on eating is a new phenomenon.
Every non-Chinese person needs to try a hotpot at least once, no different than eating curry at Tandoor or Mexican food at San Marcos. Depressionists believe Toledo is a dying city, and if so, there wouldn’t be a market for a restaurant focusing on hotpot. Toledoens have been given the chance to grow culturally for a nominal fee of under ten bucks, and they should take the chance.
Domesticated hotpot involves a bunch of family members sharing a single hotpot machine. Everyone has their own hotpot scoops resembling a mini metal colanders. The goal is to avoid overloading a scoop or randomly dropping anything into the soup. Things will get lost in the soup already packed with cabbage, meat and fish balls, tofu, and noodles.
There are also the experts, like my father, who refuse to use a scoop, like a slap to establishment and order. My father puts together a sauce exclusively for hotpot: equal parts Sriracha, olive oil, soy sauce, and oyster sauce. We eat the same ingredients: beef and chicken sliced thinly (cooks faster), squid, peeled shrimp, and chunks of cod.
Hotpot resembles a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, although more anarchist; everyone at the table is preparing the hotpot scoop, cooking, and eating simultaneously. Therefore, my family only eats hotpot during special occasions.
I dined at the Hotpot Asian Grille by Franklin Park for an early birthday dinner. The place is extremely small, just nine tables. Make reservations. The tables themselves have to account for hotpot stoves, so someone sitting across from you will seem like a shouting distance away. However, the size of the table is ultimately dwarfed by the sheer amount of food that comes with each order.
First, pick the broth. Choose a basic variety of fresh bone broth, sliced tomato and ginger. Or, try the Rejuvenation Pot: Bone broth and Chinese herbs (ginseng, goji berry, dried red dates, etc). Next door at the record shop, employees there complain about the awful smell emanating from the restaurant. Undoubtedly, they’re referring to the odorous broths, some of whom sound funky off the lips. Take for instance the Pickled Cabbage Pot: suan cai (Chinese fermented sauerkraut) and frozen tofu becoming as the restaurant describes as a sour stew.
Things get complicated fast. If you order a jumbo combo hotpot, pick two meats, then one seafood item, then five side dishes. I chose the following: Szechuan broth, lamb, beef, octopus, pig intestine, pig stomach, enoki mushrooms, eringi mushrooms, soft tofu, and an extra medium plate of head-on shrimp. My order went the fastest because I showed up early and studied the menu thirty minutes in advance of everyone else.
Ideally, I should have eaten the shrimp first, the discarded shells flavoring the broth. But I lost composure, dumping everything in at once, except the shrimp. What I’ve learned in eating hotpot at home, and now in public, is that hotpot tests patience. Place a little bit at a time into the pot, wait thirty seconds, and get it out before it’s overcooked. I worried about such things as cross-contamination, and I ate as if a competitive eater.
My experience at the Hotpot Asian Grille was memorable because of the company. This is the point of hotpot, to savor the food slowly surrounded by great family and friends. I learned that hotpot actually contradicts the concept of Thanksgiving, when families expect to eat big and to eat fast, and as all the different takes on turkey and stuffing cool and lose freshness, only then are seconds and thirds taken.