Arcadia is a city on the east side of Pasadena. It is the home of the venerable Santa Anita Racetrack, the L.A. Arboretum, and a world-famous dim sum restaurant. I have visited the city several times in recent weeks, since last Saturday was the final concert of the Pasadena Symphony conducted by Michael Feinstein at the Arboretum gardens. Last month I went with the people from Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza to their forthcoming dim sum restaurant, Din Tai Fung, at its original U.S. site in Arcadia. But this week I visited Arcadia for another truly wonderful culinary experience. In fact, I can honestly say that it was the most astonishing dining experience I have had in a long, long time.
There are dozens of hot pot restaurants in Southern California featuring the cuisine that originated in Mongolia centuries ago, but none like the one which has just opened at the Westfield Mall at 400 S. Baldwin Ave. in Arcadia (626-445-7232). HAI DI LAO translates in Mandarin as "fishing at the bottom of the sea," which is a very picturesque way to describe the dining experience. I went because I had attended a dinner party recently at Joss and sat next to a delightful Chinese fellow named Huaqiang Yuan. He told me that he is the U.S. CEO for a man named Zhang Yong who was from Sichuan province... and who owns a restaurant chain which had 97 hotpot restaurants in China and one recently opened in Singapore! And they were about to open their first in America... in Arcadia. Wow, that means they must be doing something right. I was intrigued enough to offer to visit when it opened its doors. This week I enlisted the driving services of my young hotshot Chinese friend, Nicolas Bee, who according to his mother actress Teresa Cheung is also something of a food snob. He drove from Beverly Hills to Arcadia in less than an hour via the #10 Freeway, less time than it would take to go to the beach or downtown. We both had no idea we would be having one of the most enjoyable eating experiences of our life.
In its recent article about Hai Di Lao coming to America, The Wall Street Journal said: "If P.T. Barnum had ever opened a restaurant it might look a lot like Hai Di Lao... it has the potential to do for Chinese cuisine what Benihana did to boost Japanese food in the U.S .in the 1980s." The new restaurant is nestled between Macy's and Red Robin on the first floor of the mall. It is imposing, with a stately entrance. A nice note: As you enter, the young woman at the door offers all ladies with long hair a rubber hairtie to hold their flying locks, while every man with glasses is offered eyeglass wipes to keep them clean. (In China, they are famous for having waiting rooms offering free manicures and haircuts, unlimited snacks and video games... but not here.) They have 19,000 employees there and each restaurant averages 18,000 sq. feet; the company did $512 million volume last year and expects a 20 percent increase this year.
When you are escorted to your table, the personable server will offer you a black apron with red lettering to avoid all splatters, along with a hot wet towel. (The red apron lettering reads: "Sincerely For Your Service," which is somewhat colloquial but charming.) Did I mention that this restaurant is stunning? Yes, it features plush leather booths and 32 tables with just 149 seats set far apart, as well as a large wood branch-enclosed "Bird Cage" with tables. The Bird Cage pays tribute to the famous 2008 Olympic stadium. There is no lack of pride in its Chinese heritage here.
I am told that he spent $4 million to build this gorgeous edifice, with its Chinese art panels (crafted in Italy), ceiling from India, and specially-constructed hot pot tables assembled here. They chose the architect for the Westfield Mall and contractor who worked with Universal Studios. Some 20 employees from front and back of the house were sent to China to train for two months at their restaurants there. These hot pot tables each have a large deep hole individually for each diner in which the hot pot soup is placed.
Your server proudly shows you an iPad and clicks it on to illustrate all of the choices you have for your meal. First, the choice of soup broth. You can select mushroom, spicy, tomato, seafood, or delicacy, all $5. I highly recommend the tomato, for it is flavor-rich and works with all ingredients. All of the soup base ingredients are stir fried before boiling for more flavor. Then comes the choice of hot pot ingredients, and they are numerous and interesting. For first timers, I suggest sticking to the regular items. Marinated beef ($10), Sichuan crispy pork ($7), marinated chicken ($8) -- all for a full order. Your server will inform you that half orders are available for most ingredients, so you can try more things. Then there is USDA prime ribeye ($12) and marbled beef ($10), bone-in beef short ribs ($10), lamb shoulder ($11), pork belly ($8). Other choices are crispy sausage, fresh leaf tripe, and even Spam ($6), which many Chinese and Hawaiians like. But wait, there is more, much more. Meatballs, and what they call hand-made paste balls...shrimp, scallops, cuttlefish. These shrimp balls are made just of shrimp without any fillers. Then you will see a dozen seafood choices... and I ordered the abalone ($16 for a full order). King crab legs are $13 for a half-order. Yet to try the live seafood of the day, at market price. But wait -- there is two dozen tofu and mushroom choices...and then another two dozen vegetable selections.
I ordered the sweet corn ($4) which were small chunks from the full ear and utterly delicious. Side dishes are offered, from Shrimp fried rice ($2 a bowl) to sweet dumplings ($3 a bowl) After all of this, you will be encouraged to go to the Self-serve sauce table ($3) where a multiple selection is offered, and I brought back a half-dozen little bowls of sauce to try with my choices. On that same bar is a few platters of fruit for your later consumption, all included in the $3 price. I suggested that ice cream would be the perfect dessert and their business consultant, Larry Yu, smilingly told me that a few different options are currently being considered on how to serve ice cream.They think of everything.
Now the fun part: While the server turns on your switch under the table to heat the soup pot to a boiling cauldron, you will order the NOODLE DANCE, for just $3. I have been hearing about this feature of his China restaurants for years, and now I see it. A slim man in a baseball cap (the Noodle Master, who has worked in his Chinese place for 10 years) comes out with a plastic bag of dough. He ceremoniously puts on a pair of plastic gloves, then removes the foot-long wad of dough from the bag and begins to swing the strand of dough in the air while doing a rhythmic sort of dance. Soon the strands of dough are stretched thin and supple to 10-foot-long slender ribbon-like strands. And are cut into shreds to put into the boiling broth of the diners. Fabulous fun especially for the kids among us (and in us all.) And a lot less expensive than the same performance at Mr Chow's in Beverly Hills, which costs a fortune. Here, the noodles are excellent when cooked. Incidentally, unlike most hotpot restaurants where you come out smelling of smoke and stuff, there is no odor or smoke here. Each hotpot hole has a small intake exhaust around its rim, so the smoke and smell is drawn down under the restaurant and then excavated out into the night air. Expensive, but just another example of why this world-class restaurant is so successful; it concentrates on getting all of the details right....from the immaculate ingredients to the superb service.
Speaking of cooking, by now your broth is boiling... you are advised to turn down the heat a bit and then place some of the ingredients you have ordered into the two soup ladles in each pot. Some should be cooked longer than others, which your server will advise you on. The marbled beef strips (looking like bacon) cook for about a minute, while the abalone slices should just be waved through the hot broth for about 10 seconds.
The restaurant just got a full bar, so wine, beer and cocktails are available. Me, I drank the most luscious watermelon juice -- a full pitcher for $6. There is also mango, orange, tomato and pineapple juice by the pitcher. I should note, since I am trying to be all-inclusive about this amazing restaurant, that they have some cold dishes for the table which are also excellent. I happen to love wood ear mushrooms, and that salad ($5) is perfect. Also available are glass celery and lotus bamboo, along with Sichuan pickled vegetables.
When I asked Mr. Yuan about their plans for the future, he said that they were already exploring new places in California. But he said the next restaurant would be between 8,000 and 12,000 sq. ft. to meet the unprecedented demand. So I am shouting out here to Anton Segerstrom and my friend Debra Downing of South Coast Plaza that, while you do have your dumpling place opening next April, this hot pot extravaganza would be a huge, huge hit in Costa Mesa... not only for the affluent Chinese who are flocking there but the millions of American people in Orange County who would adore it. Same goes for Rick Caruso at The Grove and his Glendale place.
Would I advise my readers to make the journey to Arcadia for this experience? You bet I would, if you are adventurous and don't mind a short trip on the freeway. Call (626) 445-7232 for reservations and, if they give you a hard time 'cause they are so packed, just ask for the manager and tell her you are a Jay Weston reader. It might help.
Hai Di Lao Hot Pot is open from 11 am to 11 pm Sunday to Thursday, and 11 am to 2 am on Friday and Saturday. Yes, you read that correctly.....'til 2 am on the weekends. I am told that in China, where they are open 24 hours a day, they are packed even in the middle of the night with Chinese diners eager for bowl of hot soup with these ingredients. Imagine, watching a noodle dance in the wee hours of the morning...now that's my kind of place.
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