Smile Politely

Culinary adventures at Hot Pot Lab

I had been meaning to visit Hot Pot Lab since it opened earlier this year, but its location at the edge of Campustown (2nd and Green in Champaign) is a bit of a hike from my place in central Urbana. This is the first specialty hot pot place I’ve seen in the Champaign-Urbana area, and I decided I owed it to myself to have at least one meal there before graduation.

When my party entered, the host and waiter greeted us with enthusiasm. There were only three occupied tables, so we received more than enough attention from staff throughout our visit. The big windows facing Green Street made the room regal and bright, and the overall ambiance was a hip, sexy-Asian-fusion kind of environment (think Sakanaya), though the music choices — reminiscent of a Pop/Hip Hop Top 100 playlist — didn’t necessarily strike me as traditional “hot pot” tunes, but helped to provide a pleasant and modern dining atmosphere.                    

At Hot Pot Lab, diners are invited to rapidly dip sliced meats, vegetables, eggs, and noodles in a small boiling pot of broth placed on small personal stoves that are built into the surface of each table. Broth is an important decision from the outset, as it will affect the quality of everything you consume during your meal. You have the option to addend it later in the meal with assorted sauces and flavors, so I wouldn’t worry too much about making the wrong decision. The menu offers three main kinds — herbal, tomato, and Szechwan — which come in three varying degrees of spiciness.

For my hot pot base, I chose the herbal broth ($4), stewed from pork bones and a number of other pleasant vegetables and salty spices. According to the menu, this broth is “incredibly nutritious,” so I silently complimented myself for making such a healthy decision. My sister picked the herbal broth with a water base instead of pork ($4), which I believe substantially weakened the taste of her dish. Without the pork base, the herbal selection tasted more like a frail tea than the hearty and salty spices of my own order. For her broth, my partner ordered a clever tomato-based sweet and sour tonic ($5) that boasted the perfect amount of sweet and sour, which throughout the meal boldly inflected each item in her bowl with authentic and saccharine tomato flavors.

In each bowl floated several tiny pink goji berries alongside a pair of larger berries that I had never seen before, rocking in the warm liquid like wrinkled buoys. Our waiter advised us not to eat the larger mystery berries, which were to serve as colorful and flavorful garnishes rather than as palatable fruits, but we sampled them anyway — and enjoyed their dull sweetness immensely.

For the substance of our meal, available to us were a modest array of seafood choices —scallops, raw shrimp, fish cakes — as well as a plethora of meat and vegetable options. We chose beef tripe ($4), sliced lamb ($7), bok choy ($2.50), potato ($2.50), seaweed ($2.50), tofu ($2.50), spinach ($2.50), enoki mushrooms ($2.50), and vermicelli, konjac, and glass noodles ($2.50 each) to compose our meal. When the dishes arrived, beautifully presented, we finely adorned our bowls with their bobbing and stewing items. Our simple ingredients soon took on novel flavors — after soaking in my broth, the lamb accrued a healthy herbal, sweet flavor and a firm, fibrous consistency. The tripe was gristly and crunched happily in my mouth, dripping with my bowl’s committed pork flavored broth. The assorted vegetables were crunchy and fresh, retaining their natural flavors in addition to taking on the tenors of my broth’s original spices.

Though not listed on the restaurant’s official menu, after talking with our waiter we were able to procure three smooth and healthy eggs for 99 cents each. This began what was one of the most fun parts of the meal. It was great fun for us to crack the egg and stir it into our boiling bowls however we wanted. It would be nice for Hot Pot Lab to formally add these treats to the menu, but my guess is that raw eggs is a concern for the Health Department – particularly if diners are the ones handling them.

There’s a definite thrill to cooking a large part of your own meal right in front of you, and it shouldn’t be understated. Eating my lot, I got the sense that I was fully in control of my own culinary destiny. The spices, the textures, the delicate process of imbibing each member of the meal in rolling broth, baptizing them into flavor, fulfilled the dramatic part of me that wants a meal to be so much more than just the rote mechanics of daily sustenance.

I tend to inhale good meals. When I’m hungry, I pay little attention to the individual contours and character of the food in front of me, swirling it all together and disappearing it as fast as possible. But hot pot doesn’t let you eat like this. When you’re eating hot pot, you have to be disciplined, planning everything you’re going to do in advance: how long this is going to cook, what portion of what is going where, and then in what order you’ll finally eat your charges. As I ate, I seared my tongue more than once as I was forced to become accustomed to the demands of the careful rhythm of heating, cooling, and consuming individual slices of meat and crisp vegetables. This was a helpful experience for someone who is new to reviewing restaurants; the hot pot process itself invites you to slow down and enjoy each bite, imposing a forced rigor that prevents one from scarfing down everything on your plate without a critical thought.

Hot Pot Lab smacked of a create-your-own-adventure style of eating, which is a good thing if you are willing to work to create a great meal. Your taste buds will have gotten a workout from sampling the mishmash of elements that palpably compose each dish, and I’m convinced that there’s more than enough variability on the menu – especially through the combinations of each item – to ensure a different kind of hot pot each time you visit.

First time hot-potters might find the meal’s unique creation process a bit unsettling. It might be helpful to invite at least one experienced diner to share a meal with you, who will be able to fill you in on the stuff you should know. For instance, ordering is community-style, and the portions were generous. We weren’t necessarily aware of this at first, and we ordered duplicate dishes by mistake. The establishment also provides your table with only one menu, which means one check unless you make it clear from the outset that you want separate bills. That said, don’t let the prospect of trying a new thing without a guide turn you off — it’s great fun to experiment with friends who are just as likely to scald their mouths or leave a piece of broccoli cooking too long or commit other hot pot faux pas.

It’s worth mentioning the aura of hospitality that Hot Pot Lab exuded throughout our meal. For instance, while the water refill service could have used a bit more attention, I got the impression that the staff simply wanted to give us as much space as possible to enjoy our experience, which meant they weren’t hovering around as much as I’ve seen at other restaurants. Our waiter approached our table delicately each time he needed to interject himself into a conversation to deliver a dish or take an order. Early in the meal, my sister found a small string of dark hair in her broth. When she pointed it out to our server, he apologized profusely and offered to bring her a new dish. She declined, but shortly received a free plate of Chinese cabbage. Even when snafus occurred, the wait staff were committed to being extremely courteous, conscious of creating a special dining environment that I’m sure will be a new experience to many residents of Champaign-Urbana.

If you have even an inkling to try a place like this, I’d urge you not to procrastinate. A visit to Hot Pot Lab would surely reward the senses, especially as the place’s entirely forgivable new-restaurant-kinks get sorted out. But it might be worth patronizing Hot Pot Lab soon, before their current specials expire. (The restaurant is offering a limited time Monday through Friday free broth special at lunchtime, and you can “like” Hot Pot Lab’s new Facebook page or post a photo of your meal on Instagram to earn a free minor seafood or tofu item.) When that happens, hopefully the restaurant’s medium-high cost won’t buck you too much. What you’re paying for here isn’t just the price of a meal, but an experience.

Hot Pot Lab is located at 112 E Green Street in Champaign, and is open daily from noon to 10 p.m.

All photos by Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu. 

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