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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The beauty of hot-pot restaurants is that someone else has done all the washing and chopping of ingredients, and you get to just enjoy making your soup.

Third, you need to prep the ingredients. Sweet Home does all that for you. All you have to do is walk up to two 6-foot-by-6-foot supermarket-style refrigerators, packed with shrink-wrapped plates of pre-prepped ingredients, some 90 or so items.

You would choose green plates ($2.85) full of Chinese cabbages and other vegetables. Yellow ($3.85) and red plates ($4.85) with sliced tofu, fish, shrimp, clams and many things that set Sweet Home apart, all Chih Chieh’s doing: beef balls, lobster balls, shrimp balls, shisito peppers stuffed with fishcake.

Fourth, you need sauces. Sweet Home has 15, all housemade. Candice concocted a witch’s brew of black-bean sauce, garlic chili sauce, Taiwanese seaweed sauce and who knows what else, topped with a haystack of green onion and cilantro.

Finally, of course, you need an induction burner at the table, so the soup roils into a rapid boil, plus strainers and big spoons and other paraphernalia.

Once provided with all those things, what you have is fun, everyone putting stuff into the soup and fishing it out to eat.

With each bite, the experience seemed more and more addictive. Layers of flavor, the broths, zingy with spice, changing as the ingredients cooked.

I might not have known when to quit except a wondrous bowl of shave ice arrived. It was topped with a coffee panna cotta, bright strawberry and mango jellies, tapioca balls and, best of all, whopping dollops of soft, housemade almond tofu. Susend, realizing that her customers liked shave ice, decided to give it away. Of course, it’s also a signal that your 90 minutes are rapidly running out.

Reason No. 3: Hot pot’s cheap. Although we hadn’t been cautious at all about ordering, dinner for three, sodas, shave ice and all, was $56.

Once I did some research and realized how central Sweet Home was to the hot- pot boom, I called Susend and asked her why she thought hot pot was popular.

“Family, all eat together,” she said. “My customer cute and nice and friendly. Eat together, happy.”

Reason No. 4: People like to share food. Sharing food works in all cultures (Spanish tapas, Japanese izakaya). But this just isn’t a plate of food you’re passing around. You’re all in the soup together.

 

 Hanaki Shabu Shabu

Manoa Marketplace, 2756 Woodlawn Drive., 988-1551, Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Japanese-style brunch: Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Free parking, major credit cards.

 

Family, all eat together. I took mine to Hanaki. With mixed results.

 “It’s a buffet,” complained my daughter.

No longer. About a year ago, just as long lines formed outside Sweet Home, Hanaki transformed itself from a Japanese buffet into a hot-pot restaurant.

Hanaki manager Mark Mitsuyoshi was offended by the notion that Hanaki changed to capitalize on the trend. He points out that shabu shabu restaurants are as common in Asia as McDonald’s are here. (“And shabu shabu here is about as common as McDonald’s are there, not very.”)

Roomier and better furnished than Sweet Home, Hanaki has much the same grammar. It has seven broths, though they weren’t marvels. The dashi-based spicy one got your attention, at least, without wowing you with its depth and richness.

The sukiyaki broth was so sweet I was surprised it didn’t harden into candy when it boiled on the burner.

Hanaki also has the serve-yourself coolers, not stuffed with the Chinese delicacies of Sweet Home, but with plenty of interesting vegetables and proteins, including lamb and crab legs.

It was not a dinner with the zing and bite of Sweet Home. But things perked up at dessert. “Look,” said my daughter, “a big mound of ice.”
A self-serve shave-ice bar comes with dinner. All the standard syrups plus condensed milk and azuki beans. Make your own, more loosely packed than a real shave ice. My family was unimpressed, but all the kids in the restaurant—and me—seemed to like it.

Reason No. 5 people love hot pot: It usually comes with shave ice.

“Shave ice restores your balance after a hot pot,” says Mitsuyoshi. “It’s something cold and sweet after something hot and salty.”

Dinner was only $65 including tip and a small bottle of sake.

It was not enough to sway my family. “It wasn’t fun, just dinner,” said my wife, “though, of course, we’re always grateful when you feed us.”

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