Hot pot chain set to make splash in California

Updated: 2013-05-30 07:13

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily)

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Chinese hot pot is a cooking method that began in Mongolia more than a millennium ago, spread in popularity over the centuries, and eventually developed into a variety of regional styles. Today, people flock to hot pot restaurants in China to eat and socialize over a communal cauldron of food.

Hai Di Lao is a popular Chinese hot pot chain. With 75 restaurants to its name, Hai Di Lao recently announced plans to open its first US location in September in the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood of Arcadia.

"The fact that Hai Di Lao is opening its first location in California points to a built-in model for success," said Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods series.

"There's already a monstrous demographic there ready for this kind of restaurant."

The concept of hot pot is like fondue, but instead of wine-spiked cheese, various forms of broth - from tongue-numbing spicy to a more mellow herbal broth - are brought to boil to cook an array of meats, seafood, vegetables, bean curd and noodles, which are then dipped in various sauces and eaten.

Hai Di Lao, which began in Sichuan in 1994 and opened its first international branch in Singapore last year, brings a VIP element to the hot pot tradition. Customers are treated to a variety of benefits and services, which help appease potential frustration over wait lists for tables that can average 50 to 75 parties during peak hours.

While they wait, patrons can nibble unlimited free snacks, check e-mail at Internet terminals, play chess or other board games, or get pampered with a shoeshine, manicure or hand massage.

In the dining room, customers are treated to hot towels, eyeglass wipes to clear away fog build-up, hair ties, plastic bags to protect cellphones from hot pot splatter, and the highly entertaining "noodle dance".

Noodle masters train an average of four to six months before they perform great acrobatic feats with lumps of dough.

Through choreography reminiscent of a rhythmic gymnast wielding a fluttering ribbon, a noodle master stretches the wedge into a long, thin continuous noodle by whipping and swirling the dough around in the air. The noodles are eventually tossed into the broth.

However, Zimmern said the American consumers can be "very fickle", and a restaurant has one chance to make a good first impression.

The food writer's recommendation for Hai Di Lao's successful entrance into the US market is to convey the story of hot pot cuisine.

Over the past decade or more, Zimmern has witnessed a shift in the American appetite to "single craftsman" restaurants, in which menus are more focused on one style, such as Japanese tempura or Brazilian steakhouses.

Zimmern said he believes there are potential customer bases not only on the highly Asian populated West and East coasts, but also in the Midwest, where places like his native Minneapolis, Minnesota, experience cold winters, making the idea of a warming hot pot experience all the more appealing.