Dating back approximately 1,000 years, hot pot refers to several East Asian varieties of stew, consisting of a simmering metal pot of stock at the center of the dining table. While the hot pot is kept simmering, ingredients are placed into the pot and are cooked at the table. Varying vastly by region, typical hot pot dishes include thinly sliced meat, leaf vegetables, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings, and seafood. The cooked food is usually eaten with a selection of dipping sauces.
Ashley: I discovered the deliciousness of hot pot with a group of friends here in New York City a few years ago and have been going on a near monthly basis since that time. I love it for both the culinary and social experiences. My favorite culinary aspect of hot pot is the dipping sauces. Most places have a make-your-own sauce bar and it can make or break your meal depending on how you mix it up. Sensitive stomachs beware!
Liz: I would definitely classify myself as an adventurous eater who loves to experience different cuisines. When Ashley spoke of her hot pot adventures I knew I wanted in! Over the past months I have really enjoyed discovering the different variations on “hot pot” in New York City. I also really appreciated spending the time with Ashley and learning from her sage sauce-making abilities.
We embarked on this food journey to experience the different varieties of hot pot that New York City has to offer. We traveled from Chinatown to Flushing, Queens to Brooklyn and tasted Chinese, Japanese, and Korean hot pot meals (not, however, in the same day). Here are our findings (with star ratings out of five).
Liz: The broth here is excellent. It is very spicy (if you order the standard Szechwan style) with pieces of hot pepper, star anise, and Szechwan peppercorns floating in the hot oil and water mixture. You get your own caldron here so no sharing is necessary. For some people that is a positive although it does change the communal atmosphere a bit.
Ashley: I am in agreement with Liz about the high quality of the Szechwan broth: it is excellent and not too oily. I absolutely love that everyone gets their own caldron so you can put in the exact ingredients you want and you don’t need to avoid any ingredients your friends put into the communal pot that you don’t care for (some of my friends love their quail eggs and beef stomach lining).
Liz: There are lots of different ingredients to combine for dipping sauces. I like to combine the soy sauce with the hot oil, garlic, and scallions. The sauce mixture can get a bit salty for my taste if I add too much soy sauce, so I had to play around with different combinations to get it just right.
Ashley: This is one of my favorite sauce bars; I can always get my mixture just right. My signature sauce consists mostly of soy sauce and hoisin sauce, but also: fish oil, garlic, scallions, and hot soy sauce. The saltiness of the soy sauce is balanced by the almost barbeque sauce-like taste and texture of the hoisin sauce, and the garlic gives it the savory element that I look for in all foods.
Liz: There is almost an embarrassing volume of ingredients. The platters are so voluminous that they take up the entire length of a long table. You can order as many different things as you want and it is all-inclusive. We ordered all types of veggies from bok choy to three different kinds of mushrooms to Chinese cabbage. There are lots of different meat options as well but I prefer the beef. The best noodles to order (in my opinion) are the udon as they have a perfect chewiness that contrasts with the crisp bok choy and the savory meat.
Ashley: The all-you-can-eat option is a definite plus. The variety of ingredients is excellent and the quality is good. Most of the meats and noodles are frozen and not fresh, but I have never been disappointed with the taste. In fact, I like my udon noodles “al dente” so having them start out frozen usually allows me to take them out before they get too soft. My classic order includes beef, udon noodles, rice noodles, fried tofu, tofu skins, cabbage, and watercress.
Liz: As this was the first place I ever went for hot pot, it will always hold a special place in my heart. Even the quirks I’ve grown to love; however, I don’t think anyone would come to this restaurant for the atmosphere. The air is filled with the smell of hot oil that sticks to your clothing. It is not set up to make the guests feel pampered. Women are hand-rolling the dumplings in plain sight of the diners and about two steps from the bathroom.
Ashley: This is definitely not the place to take a first date or anybody you’re trying to impress. What I love about the atmosphere here is being there with my group of friends. It's a small establishment and certainly doesn’t cater to a highly discerning clientele.
Liz: It's a bit of an effort to get anyone to pay attention to you here. We often had to gesticulate wildly to get the server to come to our table so we could order more ingredients. Still, no one was rude and whether we ended up actually getting the ingredients we ordered, we enjoyed what we got.
Ashley: If the restaurant is busy, it can definitely be difficult to get the server’s attention after your initial order. The ingredients come out one-by-one (not multiple ingredients on the same plate), so you may not get everything you wanted at the same time. There is a definite language barrier as well, although the servers are patient and kind and I always got what I asked for in the end.
Liz: Out of all the broths we tried, this place has the spiciest by far—and that’s a good thing! The maroon red vat of boiling hot oil and water with visible hot peppers and spices floating in it is the quintessential broth that hot pot should be. As a word of warning, because of the broth’s spiciness, you may want to be careful to not leave your food items in there too long. I found that the ingredients left in over a minute or so completely soaked up the spicy oil and were so hot, they made my eyes water.
Ashley: The Szechwan broth here is extremely spicy. The broth is so densely populated with red peppers and peppercorns, you have to be very careful not to accidentally scoop them out of the broth with your ingredients. I love spicy, but my lips and tongue were numb by the end of the meal. With that said, the flavor is amazing, which is what made me continue eating until my speech slurred due to the numbing. In future visits I will order a more neutral broth and compensate with a spicier dipping sauce.
Liz: This was one of my least favorite sauce bars. It doesn’t feel super clean. There are a lot of varieties but they weren’t as tasty as in many of the other places we visited.
Ashley: This sauce bar has more choices than Happy Lucky, but I agree with Liz that it is my least favorite sauce bar. I am never satisfied with the sauce mixtures I create here. I think the flavors are different than I am used to or than I care for, especially the hoisin sauce, which throws the whole balance of the sauce off.
Liz: There is no limit to the volume you can order (although you obviously don’t want to leave food and be wasteful which usually means eating too much). Our plate was mostly filled with green veggies of all sorts. We also had a healthy amount of noodles of different varieties and beef. I noticed, however, that other tables’ plates were overflowing with seafood. When it is all-you-can-eat it is clearly worth it to order the expensive seafood. The restaurant surely loved the fact that we overloaded on vegetables and noodles!
Ashley: Again, this is all-you-can-eat and there is also an all-you-can-drink option for domestic beers. There is a huge variety of options here for ingredients and they are very fresh and flavorful. One of my personal favorites here are the rice cakes, which can be difficult to find at other restaurants! I also prefer the rice noodles here to any other restaurant’s rice noodles, as they are thicker and retain more texture when cooked.
Liz: For me, this place has the least inviting atmosphere. It is not super clean. The linoleum floors with the cafeteria-like tables does not give off the air that you are about to have a good meal.
Ashley: While again this restaurant isn’t known for its atmosphere, I am comfortable here. The tables are round which allows for a more communal atmosphere when you go to dinner with larger groups, and there are always families there for dinner. There is also an upstairs room if you call in advance with a very large reservation.
Liz: If you ask for something you’ll get it but there is no effort to be at the beck and call of the customer.
Ashley: The staff isn’t attentive, but it is fairly easy to get the ingredients you need, regardless of how busy the restaurant is.
Liz: What makes this hot pot different than the others is that the meal is meant to be a soup. You are supposed to consume the broth along with the added ingredients. I personally love the flavor of kimchi—the spiciness and tanginess is a favorite of mine. The broth had a heat and flavor reminiscent of kimchi and so I liked it very much.
Ashley: This was my first non-Chinese hot pot experience and it was definitely not what I was used to. The meal is cooked in a shallow caldron and is essentially a soup. I definitely missed the spiciness of the Szechwan broth, but one positive is that the broth is easier to digest since it’s milder and meant to be a soup.
Liz: Because the broth is loaded with flavor and is a soup instead of a vessel for cooking, there is no sauce bar.
Ashley: No sauce bar (gasp)!
Liz: The ingredients were good (my favorite being the rice cakes); however, you only get the ingredients that come standard with the soup you order, and there is no infinite choice of things to add—which makes the experience less fun.
Ashley: This is not all-you-can-eat, and you don’t get to select your individual ingredients. There are several different “hot pot” options you can order, each with a different broth and ingredient combination based on what you want. The option we selected did come with LOTS of tofu (although it wasn’t fried), as well as beef, mushrooms, udon noodles, and greens.
Liz: The restaurant also serves Korean barbeque and thus it is smoky and congested. I also found it dark and crowded. Although this is not out of the ordinary for other Korean barbeque places I’ve been, I’d like to be able to see the ingredients in my soup as well as the company I’m with. I’d also not like to be reminded of the smell long after I’ve left as it permeates my hair and clothes. In that regard, I was disappointed.
Ashley: This restaurant is very busy and there can definitely be a long wait. It is smoky due to the barbeque option that many other patrons exercise, and rather crowded. All hot pot places leave you smelling a little like hot pot, but here the smell in your clothing after you leave is overwhelming.
Liz: The service wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible. Every so often someone would come by and adjust the heat of the pot and stir it for us but other than that we barely saw our servers.
Ashley: I agree that the service wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t excellent either. I had wanted to ask for more of an ingredient during dinner but wasn’t able to catch the attention of our server to do so.
Liz: I had the kimchi broth here instead of the usual Szechwan. Ashley and I got a pot with a divider that allowed for two different broths in the same pot— which was convenient because we wanted to try different things. I liked my broth very much. It had elements of sourness as kimchi does. It wasn’t overwhelmingly spicy so I compensated by adding more spice to the dipping sauces I made.
Ashley: The Szechwan broth is spicy but not too spicy. The one negative is that all broths here are very oily and can make the meal difficult to digest.
Liz: This was the most extensive bar of ingredients out of all the places we visited. The different bowls of sauces run the entire length of the room like a Shangri-La of choice. Except for the confusion about what end of the room to start your sauce-gathering, which causes a pile-up of diners in the middle, the joy of combining all the flavors into various sauce choices is frankly awesome.
Ashley: This is an excellent sauce bar. The variety of options allows you to try many flavor combinations and I was very happy with the mixtures we created.
Liz: This restaurant has the usual line-up of ingredients but also has something that none of the other places had: fried tofu chips. This added an enjoyable crunchy element to the meal. As a side-note, I learned after leaving the restaurant that these are not in fact “chips” to be eaten raw but instead something to put in the pot and made soggy. I think I’ll stick with my chips, even if I do get funny looks!
Ashley: This is another all you-can-eat-option and the ingredients are very fresh. All ingredients you order arrive on one or two plates and essentially at the same time so you don’t have to wait for an element of your meal. The meat is all hand-sliced so it can take a while to arrive at your table, but the quality is very good. The house specialty is also fried tofu skins and they are delicious! While Liz enjoys the pre-cooked “chips,” I enjoy the tough and chewy texture they take on once cooked.
Liz: I like the lively personality of this place. Everyone looks happy with their meal. There were groups of friends, couples, colleagues and it presents an inviting atmosphere. There are a lot of booths and the tables are large. The place has some fun style and feels cleaner than many of the other traditional hot pot restaurants we visited.
Ashley: This was the best atmosphere out of all the establishments we visited. It is always full and there are separate rooms branching off of the main dining area as well as the normal booths and tables. The décor is warm and festive and overall the place feels welcoming.
Liz: Excellent service! The hostess was very nice about the fact that we had to wait a bit for the table. She gave us the menu and talked to us about the restaurant and meal choices as we waited.
Ashley: Plan to call ahead for a reservation. I’ve been back to 99 Favor Taste for a second time and had to wait for nearly an hour as a walk-in. Despite the potential wait, the service is great. The hostess will help you look over the menu and suggest house specialties and the waiter was extremely attentive throughout the meal.
Liz: A big difference at this restaurant was that there was no flavor added to the broth—it was merely water. This was a disappointment. The thought is probably that the dipping sauces add all the flavor you need and to some extent that is true but the spice broth adds an element of heat and flavor that was missing here. Still, one benefit of the plain broth is that when the meal is coming to a close they bring you a small bowl with salt and pepper to add the broth to and make a soup to drink. Since the meat and vegetables have been stewing in the broth for a time, the water now has a beef broth taste that is very good. This wouldn’t be possible with the broths filled with hot oil at the other restaurants.
Ashley: I agree that I was disappointed that the ingredients were cooked in plain water. I love the spice and strong flavors of hot pot and those were lacking here.
Liz: There is no sauce “bar” at Shabu-Tatsu. Instead, the restaurant provides two pre-prepared sauces. They also have hot sauce on the table to augment the pre-prepared sauces—a much needed addition for those who like heat. One of the sauces was a garlic soy concoction while the other was more of a peanut sauce.
Ashley: The dipping sauces were delicious but I still prefer a sauce bar to make your own to taste.
Liz: Out of all the places we visited, the beef we were served here was by far the best. It was extremely fresh, tender, and flavorful. The veggies and noodles were also good but unlike some of the other places, there were not unlimited choices. Diners are served a set amount and variety. If you want other types of vegetables or noodles you have to order them separately at an added cost. Still, there was more than enough to eat and the quality was excellent.
Ashley: The beef here was AMAZING. It was fresh sliced prime rib and was extremely tender and delicious. There is no all-you-can-eat option and, similar to Miss Korea, the “hot pot” options come with a pre-selected mixture of veggies and noodles. We selected the most popular “shabu shabu” option. Many of the noodles are pre-cooked which I disliked since when you put them in the water they tend to cook too soft for my liking.
Liz: There was a wait to get in--which led me to believe it was going to be good. Although the place is small, each table has a fire implement in the center and is big enough to fit a small group. It was crowded and full of lively conversation. Everything was very clean and presented beautifully—something you look for when dealing with raw meat that you will be cooking yourself.
Ashley: While this restaurant is small, the seating is arranged in a manner where you do not feel too crowded. The restaurant is very clean, artfully decorated, and has a very calm atmosphere.
Liz: Very attentive servers who seemed genuinely concerned that you were enjoying your meal.
Ashley: Very attentive and helpful service.
Ashley: Happy Lucky
This is a difficult decision because each restaurant is very different. 99 Favor Taste was likely the superior dining experience but the oily broth is harsh on sensitive stomachs. New Shanghai Tan Hot Pot was another runner up but their subpar sauce bar kept it from winning. While Happy Lucky is not the most welcoming establishment, and I actually rated it lower than some of the others because of this, I have grown very comfortable with the atmosphere and routine of ordering; navigating the language barrier to obtain the desired ingredients now seems like part of the whole experience. The Szechwan broth is excellent, the ingredients are great (I love their udon noodles, fried tofu, and tofu skins) and the sauce bar is just right. For these reasons, Happy Lucky gets my number one vote.
Liz: 99 Favor Taste
Although it is a tough decision, if I had to choose my favorite hot pot experience, I think I would pick 99 Favor Taste in Brooklyn. The atmosphere is lively and the restaurant is clean. The sauce bar is immense with limitless possibilities for dipping sauce and the possibility of multiple types of broth in one pot allows for group harmony when everyone doesn’t agree on the same broth. For those reasons, this hot pot restaurant got my top vote.