4 Places to Get Your Hot Pot Fix in Honolulu
The hot-pot trend won’t quit; we take a look at four Honolulu spots for cooking up you own tasty dinner.
Grab your own ingredients—and get a lesson in shabu shabu—at Nabeya Maido in Market City.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Whatever you want to call it—huō guō (China), shabu shabu or nabe (Japan), lāu (Vietnam), Thai suki (Thailand)—one thing is true: Hot pot, a 1,000-year-old dish with meat and veggies cooked in a simmering broth, is the ultimate communal dining experience.
And you had better like the people you are sharing the meal with.
“You’re gonna dip your chopsticks in the same broth as someone else,” says Kevin Suehiro, general manager of Nabeya Maido in Market City Shopping Center, just off Kapahulu Avenue. “So you gotta be OK with that.”
Hot-pot restaurants in Hawai‘i are hotter than ever. The long line of patient customers outside the recently expanded Sweet Home Café in Mō‘ili‘ili hasn’t gotten any shorter. While some have closed, including Hanaki Shabu Shabu in Mānoa and Dipping Pot on Ke‘eaumoku Street, others have sprung up in their places, each serving a special broth or unique ingredient to set itself apart from the growing competition.
But, no matter what’s on the menu, from a kim chee broth to a plate of goose intestines, the concept is the same.
A boiling broth. A few raw ingredients. Dip, swish, eat.
We visited some new restaurants and old haunts to see what sets these hot-pot spots apart and find out why this form of dining has staying power here.
Kevin Suehiro is more than just the general manager, he’s the unofficial hot-pot sensei, offering tips on everything from the best time to throw in udon—
“Save it till the end; the broth will boil off and get thicker and more flavorful, and the noodles will soak that up”—to how best to shape the tsukune (minced chicken)—“Make it into a small, oblong ball, not a circle; it will cook faster because there’s more surface area.”
It’s obvious Suehiro is passionate about shabu shabu. He opened this 1,000-square-foot restaurant in December 2013 with chef Yusuke “Sam” Sonobe, who most recently worked in the kitchen at Yakitori Glad on Kapahulu, which is where the two met.
“Not to sound too romantic or anything,” Suehiro says, “but I think hot pot actually brings people together.”
The dining area resembles an onsen: light wood paneling unevenly set against black walls that make you feel you’re sitting in a hot-spring bath, or, appropriately, a hot pot. There’s not a lot of seating, just 11 tables, and, on this weekday night, right after sunset, it was mostly filled.
“It’s weird,” our server told us, “but people always come after 5:30, when our happy hour ends. And it’s 20 percent off the entire menu! I don’t get it.”
We, too, were here after happy hour. I made a mental note.
The menu was simple enough: six broths, all made daily from scratch; a few pūpū dishes such as a pipikaula poke; and a slew of wine, sake, shochu and beer choices. All of the pre-prepped ingredients are stacked on colored plates—“like at Genki Sushi,” our server said—in supermarket-style refrigerators in an area called the Food Cave: Green plates are $2.90, yellow $3.90, red $4.90 and blue $5.90. Popular items are the tsukune with nankotsu (minced chicken mixed with cartilage), pumpkin, Kurobuta pork belly, Hokkaido scallops, shimeji mushrooms and Tokyo negi. (The watercress is locally grown and delivered by the farmer himself.)
The most popular broth is the shoyu-based Maido Nabe ($7.90), flavored with kombu (seaweed), garlic and chili pepper. It’s simple and clean, a contrast to the Akakara Nabe ($8.90), a vibrantly red broth spiced with kochujang (Korean red-hot-pepper paste) that paired perfectly with our plate of won bok (Chinese cabbage). It was like eating kim chee directly from the pot.
The star of the menu, and a point of contention with some customers, is the selection of sauces. Sonobe crafted four unique dipping sauces: gomadare (sesame miso); ponzu with yuzu; Sam’s Sauce, a shoyu-garlic sauce made with hand-grated fruits and vegetables; and the hot-and-spicy Lily’s Sauce, named after Sonobe’s daughter. While most hot-pot restaurants offer sauces for free, Nabeya Maido charges $3.90 for the set of four.
“That’s the one thing I hear from customers,” Suehiro says. “They want free sauces. But if you look at the amount of time and effort put into each one, they’d understand why we charge.”
Ask hot-pot aficianados and each one’s got an opinion about what makes them great. Some say it’s in the broth, others point to the ingredients you add. But some are big into the sauces, including our dining companion, who literally drank a concoction he came up with at Sweet Home Café once. And, here, the sauces are definitely good enough to pay for.
Lunch and dinner daily, free parking in a crowded lot, major credit cards, Market City Shopping Center, 2919 Kapi‘olani Blvd., 739-7739
The extensive and unique ingredients at Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot in Ward contrast its humble selection of dipping broths.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
The California-based hot-pot chain Little Sheep, which boasts more than 300 locations in Asia and across North America, opened in the sprawling space vacated by E&O Trading Co. (and other short-lived ventures) in Ward Center this past May, to much anticipation.
A new hot-pot spot, one with international appeal and an eclectic menu of ingredients that you won’t find anywhere else, in a glossy space with cushy lime-green chairs, a full bar with six beers on draft, a shiny sauce bar where you can create your own dipping combinations and Asian pop music pulsing throughout the dining area. It’s no surprise the crowd here is as young as the vibe.
The menu is big and broad, with unique ingredients that include goose intestines, pork kidneys, lamb shoulder, surf clams, roe-filled fishcake, Taiwanese lettuce, taro vermicelli knots, wood ear mushrooms, yam noodles, tomatoes, wintermelon, housemade lamb wontons, pork blood rice cakes and Spam—“for the kids,” our slick-haired server said.
In addition, Little Sheep offers a nice selection of side dishes that don’t need to be cooked, including pickled garlic, Mongolian kim chee, a beef pie, and a big and dense sesame pancake that we couldn’t stop dipping into the broth and eating. It was addictive.
Unlike most hot-pot places, though, Little Sheep offers only two broths ($3.95 per person): a milky and mild 36-spice original soup with dried longan, garlic and sweet red dates; and a spicy version packed with chili peppers and sesame. The signature, though, is the Yin and Yang pot, which we ordered. It’s the best way to sample both broths.
I’m not a big fan of the plethora of assorted broths at hot-pot restaurants. In fact, I actually prefer to eat shabu shabu with lightly seasoned boiling water—kombu is enough—and use dipping sauces to add flavor to the ingredients I’m cooking. So I didn’t mind the lack of broth variety.
Another selling point: This place offers half orders of everything, so you can sample more items on the menu. The small plate of baby bok choy, for example, had maybe three heads. And the tables here are wide and big, with plenty of room to spread out, which we needed to do, since we ordered more plates than I thought it possible to finish.
We finished it all, then went to Baskin-Robbins for dessert.
Lunch and dinner daily, free parking, major credit cards, Ward Village, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., 593-0055, littlesheephotpot.com
LOCAL MEATS AND ORGANIC VEGGIES SET SHABU SHABU HOUSE ON KAPI‘OLANI APART FROM OTHER HOT-POT SPOTS.
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK
Shabu Shabu House
You won’t find owner Kazuyo Makita at her restaurant, Shabu Shabu House, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
She’s in yoga class.
Tall and lithe, like a ballet dancer, Makita lives the philosophy of healthy eating that she promotes here.
She took over management two years ago from her ex-husband, Toshimitsu Matsuzaki, who opened this shabu shabu-only restaurant in 2004, three years before Sweet Home Café. Makita has elevated its healthy offerings to include locally grown organic veggies such as curly kale and Swiss chard; fresh eggs from HoaMoa Farms; and a vegetarian detox set to help boost metabolism and energy levels.
“People like it because it’s healthy and it’s fast,” says Makita, who eats hot pot herself almost every day.
Earlier this year, Makita decided to add locally grown meats to the menu. Currently, the restaurant offers Maui Nui venison, healthy, lean meat from axis deer harvested on Maui; and grass-fed beef from Kulana Ranch on the Big Island. (Both the Maui venison and Big Island rib-eye sets are $24.95 each.) While she likes to support local farms and ranches—she shops for veggies at local farmers markets and runs to Down to Earth when the restaurant is low on ingredients—Makita is always looking for healthy options for her customers. (You can opt for brown rice with your meal.)
“I really want to shift to more healthy, organic and local (meats and vegetables),” she says. “It’s just better.”
The restaurant seats about 40 people, half of them at a U-shaped counter. Each table has three squeeze bottles with ponzu, sesame and ginger sauces accompanied by small containers of chopped green onions and shredded daikon and a bottle of Sriracha, all hot-pot standards. On the blackboard behind the counter are the daily organic specials, which on our visit included curly and dinosaur kale, pea sprouts, baby Swiss chard and dandelion greens.
We ordered both local-meat sets, which included won bok, choy sum, enoki mushrooms, tofu and udon noodles. The thinly sliced rib-eye beef was so fatty, it melted in our mouths. And the venison wasn’t as gamey as we had anticipated. The meat was firm and robust with flavor. It went well with the paitan broth ($4.95), a rich, milky soup base made from pork bones simmered for hours. My husband opted for the kim chee broth ($4.95), which was spicy enough that he didn’t reach for the bottle of Sriracha once. Our server recommended we mix the two—the broths were divided in the pot—but we finished too quickly with our plates of meats and vegetables to try it. A good sign, he signaled with a smile and a nod. Clearly, we had enjoyed our meal.
Lunch and dinner daily, validated parking, major credit cards, 1221 Kapi‘olani Blvd., 597-1655, shabushabuhousehi.com
Customers flock to Asuka Nabe & Shabu Shabu for Hitoshi “Kenny” Ikeguchi’s masterfully crafted dipping broths—and fresh ingredients.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Asuka Nabe & Shabu Shabu
The restaurant itself is unassuming. The drab walls have a few framed prints, nothing else. Dingy lamps hang over the cramped booth with red cushions so flat you can feel the hard wood beneath. And the tables are already crowded before you even order, littered with two burners, squeeze bottles filled with sauces, utensils and stacks of small bowls.
But people don’t flock to Asuka for the ambiance. They come for two things: the broth and the BYOB.
Japan-born chef Hitoshi “Kenny” Ikeguchi is the master behind the broths, all made from scratch daily, some taking more than four hours to cook. He boasts more than 45 years of experience in the food and hospitality industry, gaining his culinary training at the Osaka Castle Hotel. He opened and managed Kobe Japanese Steak House restaurants in Vancouver and Waikīkī, worked as the head chef of
a French fine-dining restaurant in Manhattan, and has dabbled in restaurant and entertainment ventures in Hawai‘i, Morocco, California and the Philippines.
In 2004, he, along with Toshimitsu Matsuzaki, opened Shabu Shabu House on Kapi‘olani Boulevard, considered the first restaurant to serve only shabu shabu in Hawai‘i. He left to open Asuka three years ago in this 1,500-square-foot spot in Kaimukī.
On most days, Ikeguchi greets customers—we found him in a short-sleeved shirt tucked into relaxed pants and Nikes—with an easy friendliness that makes you feel instantly welcome.
Ikeguchi keeps it traditional here. Taiwanese-style hot-pot places like Sweet Home Café keep ingredients in serve-yourself refrigerators and finish meals with housemade dessert. Asuka, in contrast, is very Japanese. You pick broths and ingredients from the menu and a server brings your order.
“Once I go to a restaurant, I sit down and I don’t want to stand up,” Ikeguchi says. “I want the server to come and serve me. This is the Japanese way.”
Here, he offers four basic soup bases: kombu seaweed, spicy umakara sweetened with honey, the ‘ahi-based wafu and the sweet Osaka sukiyaki, one of which is included in the cost of a set. And then there are 10 premium soup bases you can opt for at an additional charge. The most popular is the Asuka Classic ($2.95), which, Ikeguchi says, has a 1,300-year history and is made from milk, honey, miso and chicken broth.
The sets are basic, too, with pork, kalbi short ribs, chicken and combinations of meats, starting at $17.95, and come with assorted vegetables, soft tofu, udon noodles and homemade gyoza. Each set also includes an endless bowl of either white rice or gokoku-mai, a nutty mixed-grain rice.
In addition to pork and rib-eye beef, we ordered a few side dishes of vegetables including baby bok choy, Chinese cabbage, choy sum and sokisoba (Okinawan noodles). The vegetables were fresh and crisp, something that’s mandatory for hot-pot restaurants.
“We have to use fresh, very green vegetables because we cannot cheat,” says Ikeguchi, who buys ingredients every day from Chinatown or through a distributor. “People can see it before it’s cooked, so it has to be fresh.”
When the broth came—we opted for the classic—the server brought a plate
with a pat of butter and cracked black pepper.
“A lot of people like to add this to the soup,” our server said. “It’s good. You should try it.”
The broth was fine on its own, but we dropped the butter and pepper into the boiling soup.
I couldn’t believe the difference. The rib-eye, already tender and flavorful in the original soup base, was now rich and creamy. The butter added a fuller flavor to the broth, and everything we could pull from it. The round onions, the bok choy, the pork, all suddenly became complex bites in our mouths.
By the end of dinner, we looked at what was left. Empty plates, a pot of murky broth and an untouched bowl of ponzu sauce. Asuka just might have cured me of my sauce addiction
Lunch Wednesday through Sunday, dinner daily, street or municipal lot parking, major credit cards, 3620 Wai‘alae Ave., 735-6666, asukanabe.com