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.

Sweet Home Cafe, Hanaki Shabu Shabu, Hot Pot Heaven and Ichiriki Japanese Nabe Restaurant


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.

 

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.”

 

Heckathorn’s tip? Hot Pot Heaven’s spicy kimchee broth did magical things to pork, cabbage and kabocha.

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.


Are you a methodical hot-pot user, or do you throw everything in at once? Everyone has their own style.

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.

 

Ichiriki Japanese Nabe Restaurant

510 Piikoi St., 589-2299, Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner nightly 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight, Sunday until 10. Limited parking, major credit cards.

 


Unlike many of the hot-pot restaurants we visited this month,  Ichriki brings trays of ingredients to you.

Ichiriki can hardly be accused of capitalizing on the hot-pot boom, since it opened in 2005. In fact, it originally enjoyed its own outburst of trendiness.

Its novelty was paper nabe, essentially a hot pot in a paper bowl. The special paper withstood the gas flame underneath, the boiling liquid inside. Theoretically, it absorbed some of the fats from the meal, making it healthier.

“We got a small bump from the hot-pot craze, but, really, we have our steady customers, who like what we do and keep coming back,” says Ichiriki’s manager, Masaki Sasada.

The difference between the new hot-pot eateries and Ichiriki is that Ichiriki is a real restaurant. You sit, food comes.

Two of you can order two different shabu shabu. You get a metal pot divided by a curve that makes it look like a yin-yang circle. Our yang was the house dashi-based broth. Our yin was the pirikara, which adds to the dashi the vibrant flavors of chilies and garlic.

No trip to the coolers. Each person gets a tray of food, artfully arranged, fans of chives, green onions and enoki mushrooms, won bok, tofu, aburage, stunningly uniform slices of ribeye, and kuzukiri (transparent noodles made of arrowroot).

Plus tsukune, a mild Japanese chicken sausage encased in a long, narrow bamboo scoop. No self-serve; our waiter deftly scooped out portions of tsukune into the soup, creating little meatballs.

There are two styles of hot potting. I just throw stuff in all at once. The friend I brought was methodical. The whole shiitake mushroom caps needed to go in first, because they took a while to cook. The cabbage cooked so fast you could throw it in last.

Reason No. 7: Hot pot gives you the illusion you’re actually cooking, although someone else has done all the work.

The last thing I threw in the pot was something that looked odd to me: finger-size, tough-skinned sausages. When I finally succumbed to trying one, it had a nice snap when you bit into it and a blast of smoky pork flavor. “These,” said my friend, “are far better than they look.”

I like a restaurant that knows what it’s doing; I would have never chosen the sausages from a cooler. (I learned later, they are called arabiki.)

Another nice touch: As you wind down, the server arrives with noodles. “Yes, you wait for the noodles until the soup is ‘perfected’ by cooking all the other ingredients in it,” says Sasada.

“They better have shave ice,” said my friend as we finished the noodles. Of course, it arrived: a slightly too sweet strawberry shave ice with condensed milk, ice cream and mochi balls, the whole shebang.

Having washed down the soup with a few of Ichiriki’s tasty ume shochu cocktails, we ended up with a highly satisfying $80 dinner. “Eating like this,” said my friend, “is just enough work to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

Which led me to Reason No. 8: People like hot pot because they haven’t just eaten off a plate, and feel they’ve actually done something. Conquered dinner.

Maybe the Mongol warriors were onto something after all.