Hot Pots in Honolulu Restaurants

Hot Pots are Hot: What’s trendy in Honolulu restaurants? A commonly found, Asian family meal with a thousand-year history. Here’s why it seems so new.

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A mob of diners outside Sweet Home Café.

How does a thousand-year-old dish  suddenly become a Honolulu food trend? Hot pot is a style of food preparation that spans Asia: huō guō in China, shabu shabu in Japan, lāu in Vietnam. Hot pot was supposedly (but probably not actually) developed by Mongol warriors who cooked their food by boiling soup in their helmets.

It’s a simple idea: Boil soup, dip other ingredients into it.

Why is there suddenly a hot-pot boom in Honolulu? I did some sleuthing and, as far as I can figure, here’s Reason No. 1 for the boom: a woman named Susend Chang.

 

Sweet Home Café

2334 S. King St., 947-3707, Dinner nightly 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Free parking in a crowded lot, major credit cards.

 


The hot-pots.

Susend Chang—her customers call her Susan—started Sweet Home Café in 2007, selling sandwiches. Because Chang’s parents had a hot-pot restaurant in Taiwan for 30 years, she also sold individual hot pots.

In her second year, she realized her customers liked the hot pots better than sandwiches. She switched formats. All hot pots, all the time.

In her third year, she got a secret weapon. Her brother was chef Chih Chieh Chang, who had done marvels at Shanghai Bistro and Hong Kong Harbor View (black pepper shrimp steak on garlic fried rice!).

Chih Chieh originally thought hot pots were a bad idea—It’s hot in Hawaii, who wants hot pots?—but when Hong Kong Harbor View closed, he went to work with his sister.

BOOM! Now all 48 seats were full all the time. Sweet Home’s popularity led to long lines. And imitators. And the infamous 90-minute rule.

I had no idea of any of this when my friend Candice texted us on our way to the restaurant: “Come fast! The owner just lectured me that we have 90 minutes to eat starting from the time I sat down!”

We hurried.

Crowded into a corner table, I realized Reason No. 2 for the boom in hot-pot eateries: Although simple in concept, hot pot requires so much prep and specialized equipment that it’s simpler, faster and probably cheaper to order it in a restaurant than make it.

You need broth. In Sweet Home’s kitchen, Chih Chieh spends all day brewing up 14 different broths. That’s why the restaurant can’t open for lunch.

You can choose two broths for your table, in a divided pot. Our choices : a chicken-based, yellow-curry broth that made us hungry just smelling it, and the house seafood broth with ginger, cilantro, onion and peppers, a whiff of which reminded me how skilled Chih Chieh really is.

Second, you need meat, which first has to be frozen and run through a slicer. It arrives in curls: pink pork, heavily marbled beef, white meat chicken so thin it’s nearly translucent.

Have Feedback? Suggestions? Email us!

,June

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