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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Hot Pot Heaven
McCully Shopping Center, 1960 Kapiolani Blvd., 941-1115, Lunch daily 11 a.m to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 12 midnight, Free parking in a crowded lot, major credit cards.
In the 1980s, when Kim Nguyen’s family escaped from Vietnam, they hid her in a convent because she was too little to take along. She herself tried to escape at age 6, failed and spent a week in jail.
She finally arrived in Hawaii in 1999. “My family all were refugees; I came on a plane,” she says.
After Farrington and UH, she’s now a counselor at Windward Community College.
Nguyen became enamored of hot pots on a trip back to Vietnam. “I knew it was popular in Hawaii, and there were only a few restaurants. We visited them all.”
She convinced her fiancé, Jimmy Tran, an accountant, to plunge into the restaurant business. Hot Pot Heaven was born.
Hot Pot Heaven is much like Sweet Home. Brighter, newer and more spacious, less crammed and frenetic, but still small. Like Sweet Home, there’s usually a line during the dinner rush.
I took a hipster friend, who lived in the neighborhood. He had wondered what the fuss was about, but had been unwilling to stand in line. I called; Hot Pot Heaven takes reservations. I made one.
My friend was dismayed by all the choices: 10 broths, chicken, seafood, beef and vegetarian, also tofu, mushroom, Thai, kimchee and a “Hawaiian” broth that includes pineapple.
“We choose a broth? Two? Really?” said my friend. “Not pineapple.”
Then meats. Hot Pot Heaven’s presentation of meats shines: curls of richly marbled rib eye, even richer, thin slices of tongue and pork so radiant and fatty they make your heart glad just to see them raw.
“What next?” asked my friend. To the coolers for ingredients. “This is exhausting,” he said.
Despite his attitude, I discovered Reason No. 6: People, my hipster friend aside, love choice. You could eat hot pot every night of the week without repeating yourself.
I did repeat myself. I knew what worked in soup: pak choy, kabocha, mushrooms, aburage to soak up the broth’s flavors, udon, because you need a substantial noodle.
My tip: Skip the sauces. Why go to all this bother and then dunk your food in something so spicy, or sweet, or salty, or full of cilantro that you can’t taste it?
Hot Pot Heaven’s broths stand on their own. The beef broth convinced me, before I ever talked to Nguyen, that the restaurant had Vietnamese roots. One whiff and I said to yourself: phô.
“I’d really like the beef if I wasn’t comparing it to the kimchee,” said my friend. We’d ordered the kimchee broth in its spiciest version, which did magical things to the pork and cabbage and kabocha.
“Not really spicy,” said my friend. “I didn’t break out into a sweat when I tasted it.”
We washed it all down with some inexpensive sake we had brought along. Like Sweet Home, Hot Pot Heaven is BYOB. You have to love a place where you eat everything and walk out with a $48 tab.
If not celestial, Hot Pot Heaven is a terrific, tasty little restaurant. All it lacks is shave ice, though two pieces of mochi ice cream appeared as if by magic at the end of the meal.