Hai Di Lao

For the past couple weeks, I’ve had this unending craving for hot pot. And, I’ve heard many things about must-go hot pot spot, Hai Di Lao. They’re one of the more famous chains, and purportedly better than Little Lamb or Xiabu Xiabu. I’ve never been, and have been putting out hot-pot as a suggestion any time a group dinner comes up for the past month.

Finally, a friend had some friends in town and the timing aligned so that I was able to get my fix. We went to what I believe is their newest location, in the basement of the mall of Taiyanggong Station on Line 10. We arrived at 8:00. This is incredibly important for a decent hot pot experience.

The problem is this incredible Chinese phenomenon. People go to the restaurant with a line, because a line means its good and the best and worth waiting for. People also all eat like clockwork. Seriously. Everyday at my office, at 12:00, all the Chinese colleagues stream out, joining the mad rush of Chinese officer workers from every office in the vicinity, and hordes descend on all the restaurants and cafeterias and cafes. Should you leave, say fifteen minutes before 12, you’ll beat the rush. Should you go to lunch at 1, it’s empty. In this office, we all choose our own lunch hours, it’s pretty flexible, and yet I rarely see anyone leave later than 12:15. This also applies to dinner. Between 5:30-6:30, you will wait for a minimum of one hour to be seated at Hai Di Lao. I’m not sure any hot pot is worth me sitting and waiting for an hour. Outside the actual restaurant, Hai Di Lao has about 50 small tables set up just for the people who wait. There’s even a manicurist right inside their doorway who will PAINT YOUR NAILS WHILE YOU WAIT TO BE SEATED. Read that, and think about how ridiculous this is. This isn’t just even on Thursday or Friday nights. This is every night. But, should you go at say, 8:00, that waiting area will be completely empty, half the restaurant will be empty, and you’ll be ushered in immediately.

I’ve been told that they have a curry broth that is amazing, but it’s off menu and only occasionally available. We settled for the spicy hot pot (plain broth with a large bag of hot chili oil poured on top) and a mushroom based broth, which, to be honest, was a bit bland. We also only let them pour about 3/4 of the spicy oil in, and it was still too piquant for my taste. There is a self serve bar to make dipping sauces, but they charge per person (not per bowl, it’s help yourself to as many as you want, but per person). We told them three of our party of six would want sauce, but then all went up one by one. I personally enjoy crushed garlic, chives, a whole bunch of sesame paste, sesame oil, and crushed peanuts, with a little bit of soy sauce and vinegar. Hotpot at home, I’ll throw an egg yolk in there (very Taiwanese) but they didn’t seem to have any. Ginny made an excellent discovery with a western red pepper sauce drowned in sesame paste.

The highlight of this experience is the noodle dance. We ordered the hand pulled noodles. A chef will come over with a tray of wide thick cut noodles, and then start wildly flinging them around and ribbon-dancing with the noodle. Miraculously, the noodle never touches the ground. I’ve been told that sometimes, the noodle-dancer will have a little music player clipped to his belt. Unfortunately, our noodle-dancer must have been the apprentice, because he was not equipped.

The out of town guests also got to experience a little bit of China via our table neighbors. Clearly, they had been dining and drinking for many long hours, as one guy was…just obliterated. The rest of his companions were respectably behaved, but this guy…well, he stood up in his booth and saw us, and then shouts “LAOWAI! Foreigners!” And proceeded to shout “Hello!” “Beautiful Girl!” and “I LOVE YOU” over and over in succesion. Funnily enough, hello and beautiful girl were directed to the ladies, but the ‘I love you’ was very clearly directed at Bambi. He and Bambi proceeded to have a short, inebriated-on-one-end conversation, and he wanted to toast us all with baijiu. Despite this conversation being entirely conducted in Mandarin, he still turned to his friends, to ask, “Hey, how do I say ‘baijiu’ in English?” and when Bambi was like, nope, we know what that is, he was just utterly flabbergasted and surprised that he could understand Chinese.

To reiterate, entire conversation in Mandarin, then surprise about understanding one vocabulary word in Mandarin. I’d like to blame it on his intoxication, but seeing as how we’ve all had this exact sort of conversation with an entirely sober Chinese person, I can’t.

…And then, two days later, another friend with an out of town visitor invited me to hotpot, this time, to the Baijiazhuang  location. Obviously, I could not turn down the opportunity to stuff my face with more deliciousness. What really makes the meal is the sesame sauce. I ate pretty much an entire bowl of just sauce in the dipping of all of the tasty items from the hotpot. A new item, which I had never heard of before, is some sort of shrimp paste in a bag. A waitress comes over and pours it out like piping from a pastry bag. It puffs up in the soup, and is served with its own tasty soy sauce based sauce.  Also a very satisfying dinner, and when it started raining, the restaurant offered all the departing patrons free plastic ponchos. A+, Hai Di Lao, A+. I’m impressed.

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