This past weekend, my family and I took part in an amazing culinary experience at a local restaurant chain. It is known as Hot Pot and is a Chinese favorite because of the different flavors and delicious foods you can have in one sit-in! We had been waiting a few months to try it for ourselves because you usually go with a big group. When a few friends offered to take us before shopping for winter clothes, we jumped at the opportunity!
Keep in mind, when we went, I did not plan on making a full blog post about a single meal. We have been to many restaurants in China and I have never felt the need to share my experience after a meal. Sometimes I would just tag it in for my monthly recap or something. But this experience was just that…an experience! This three-hour lunch was full of great food, performances, and amazing customer service! For those of you that may not know what hot pot is, I will explain. There is a stovetop in the middle of your table that allows you to cook different pots of flavored soups. You choose the different flavors you want to cook your meats, fish, and vegetables in (spicy, garlic, etc) and then you cook them at your own pace! There are plenty of extras to throw in and so it can be different every time you go!
The best-known hot pot restaurant is called Hai di Lao and has locations all over Asia. To get there, we hopped again on the subway to central Beijing. We had never been this close to Tiananmen Square before and the crowds in the subway were fairly large for being only 11:00 am on a Saturday. My friend told me this was nothing and that the subways were packed full on the workdays. We left the subway station and came to a giant cluster of malls (yes, as in more than one). These buildings were shiny, new, and covered in advertisements. We took the elevator up to the seventh floor to meet up with another friend waiting for us. Once we got there, we were ushered past a fairly empty waiting room to a booth our friend had already reserved for us (our friend was not there when we arrived, only her belongings). A nice woman gave us hot towels to wash our hands and gave us time to order. We chose to have meats and a few vegetables for our main courses. The flavors we chose to dip our food in were tomato, buttery garlic, spicy, and mushroom (pictured above). They also gave us all aprons to avoid splatter and a little rabbit desert for Calvin made of yogurt for him to eat while we waited for our food and hot pots to be prepared.
Our friend finally came back after we had been there 5 minutes. She said that this restaurant offered complimentary hand massages on the weekends (nails too on weekdays). I was in such disbelief that I signed up immediately. It was only 5 minutes or so before I was called to the front of the restaurant to receive my treatment. The technicians didn’t speak English, but were easy enough to understand. My tech kept holding up my hand to hers to compare and remarking that my hands were so white! That is a compliment here in China. She scrubbed my hands with a brown sugar exfoliant and a silky moisturizer whilst massaging my hands. The whole process took only 5 minutes, but I wasn’t expecting it so it was a real treat. She wrapped my hands in plastic gloves and said to give it 10 minutes before taking them off. I went back to my table and felt truly pampered!
Once we got back, we took some time to go to the self-spicing station. Here they have a bunch of different spices, vegetables, and dried meats to flavor your peanut dipping sauce. Calvin and I added garlic, onions, etc. Korey went for a much spicier version with chilis and oils. Especially if you are nervous about trying hot pot, it is nice to play around with some flavors that you are already familiar with. We got back just in time for our food to be delivered! The waiter started out by pouring some of the tomato soup into individual bowls before grabbing the food. I have never been too fond of tomato soup, but Hai Di Lao’s was AMAZING. It was filled with spiced beef, celery, and onions. I kept eating so much they had to fill the hot pot at least twice. Then they started delivering the meats. Imagine plates full of thinly sliced mutton, beef, and chunks of steak. It was so fun to experiment and throw them into the different flavored pots. I think the garlic was my favorite to dip the meats into, but Korey and Calvin preferred the mushroom. The spicy one was incredibly spicy, even for my husband who laughs off most spices!
I thought we were almost done after an hour, but my friends said there was much more! They asked the waiter to perform the ‘noodle dance’. We were immediately intrigued and they said that the waiter brings out a small piece of dough to make the noodles. They stretch the noodle and does a dance to fling the dough about and make it very thin. All of this for 6 yuan (85 cents USD)! He came and performed the dance and it was even more unbelievable than described! He made the dough twirl, jump, ribbon around..and even flung it in Calvin’s face pulling back the last second, causing him to jump back! After is got the desired length and thinness, he put it into the hot pot flavors we requested to cook for a few minutes. I had the garlic one again and it was delicious!
Now we are done, right? Of course not! They continued to bring us different vegetables and fish for us to try. Calvin and Korey loved the shrimp balls and were amazed at how many they gave us! We continued to find them in the bottom of the hot pots after they had left, with the shrimp balls fully absorbing the flavors. They brought out something that I found delicious and interesting. I thought they were translucent noodles because they were long and tied up into neat rolls, but my friends said they were a type of vegetable. They didn’t know the English name for them and I had never seen a vegetable that looked like that before. Anyway, once marinated in the hot pot, they were delicious. I would take ownership of any ‘noodle thingy’ that we found floating in the flavored hot pots because they were so good. We were on hour 2 of our experience and my friends talked to the waiters and seemed excited! They said that they had one more surprise up their sleeves.
Apparently, Hai Di Lao has other performances to entertain the diners. One is a traditional Chinese dance known as the Face-Changing dance. Calvin told us that he had learned about this tradition at school, but my husband and I had never heard of it. Anyways, Hai di Lao usually performs this dance for their dinner crowd around 7 pm. But because it was our first time and we had never dined at Hai Di Lao before, the waiters told my friends that a dancer would perform for us per their request. We continued to eat as the dancer prepared and used the bathrooms. Thank god for this places’ customer service because they had western bathrooms too! The bathroom also had a full-time attendant to clean and provide things like combs, mouth wash, etc.
When we got back, it was time! The waiters moved us to another side of the restaurant so that we might view the dancer better. Then this man came out fully dressed in Chinese garb. He had a red cape, red fan, and a black and gold outfit. He was dancing up and down the aisles between the tables, sometimes flicking the fan in front of his face. Every time the fan came down, a different mask was on his face. It was pretty spectacular considering how fast the fan was moving. Little Chinese kids were running after him and then away every time his face changed. Before he ended his performance, he came over to Calvin and Korey and shook their hands along with a few other children. Once he had finished, the whole restaurant applauded. Finally, it was time to leave and we picked up the bill to thank our friends for such a wonderful time. Believe it or not, all of that only cost 675 yuan ($95) for 5 people to eat to their heart’s content, get hand treatments, and see two performances. I love Hai Di Lao!
After the amazing lunch, we went to do what we came here to do…shopping! Beijing is already starting to get cold midway through October and we wanted to buy some necessities like gloves, hats, and sweaters. We went down a few floors in the mall and discovered we were in one of the most expensive malls in Beijing. We went up an escalator that was once the largest in Asia (not anymore though). It went up six stories to the ‘dating’ floor. Yes, this is actually what it is labelled in English and Chinese. This was an area dedicated to young couples dating. There were a ton of snack places and desserts (and quite a few teenagers on their first dates). My friends said this was more and more common in China. We grabbed Calvin some bubble gum ice cream and retreated to the lower floors for shopping. After traveling around a bit, we went to another mall for cheaper goods because I was not willing to spend 3000 rmb on a coat I could get on Taobao for half that!
When we finally left to head home in time for a surprise birthday party, the streets were PACKED! These were the largest crowds I had seen since coming to China and there were people everywhere. Getting a didi was possible, but also silly because the traffic was bad in Beijing’s center (also expensive considering the subway was 5 yuan a person). We resigned ourselves to taking a subway home and I was shocked by how many people were down there. For those of you that don’t know, I live in the suburbs of Beijing where the subways are never very crowded. This day in the center of the city, we were literally pushing to get all of us on the same subway car. My friend still said that it could be worse than this on the weekdays, but I can’t believe it since we had to push to get on and off. Our last subway home was much less crowded but still had no seats available, standing for us! We were tired but still so happy with all that we got to experience and thank our friends for adding another adventure to our list. I know where I will be taking my mom when she visits in April! My next blog post will be about our first Chinese Halloween! Until next time!