Mini Hot Pot on Park Street offers more than just great food. Customers come away with an excellent meal and an entertaining and interactive dining experience.
More and more, even when you enter a straightforward restaurant these days, a host or server will ask if you’ve visited before and maybe fill you in on specials or unique features of the place. But at Mini Hot Pot, a cook-it-yourself restaurant, we were shown a table and given menus, but no instructions. And this is not an intuitive place.
First of all, there were a bunch of pens on the table, but it wasn’t clear we had to mark the paper menus to order.
Not only do you check the meat you want (beef, pork, chicken, lamb — there’s also sliced fish or mixed vegetable), but you also choose a soup base. There are eight, including Szechuan, Korean kimchi and Singapore coconut.
It’s cheaper to go at lunchtime when the hot pot special is $9.95. Portions are large, so it makes sense to share, only that will cost you an extra $5.99. Dinner hot pots start at $12.99 for mixed vegetable, and go up to $18.99 for seafood.
Vincent Chang, who before opening Mini Hot Pot managed the Asian food department at the Hy-Vee in Fitchburg for two years, opened the small restaurant almost a year ago. It’s in a small strip mall next to Taj Indian Restaurant, where Mabuhay Philippine Cuisine used to be.
Chang’s wife, Amy, brought out our food, while their daughter Yahan, a junior at Memorial High School, waited on us. Chang said now that Yahan is back in school, their other daughter, Sihan, will be the one waiting tables.
After we ordered, we were told to visit the sauce bar, where there were at least a dozen sauces and fixings. When I gave our young server a deer-in-the-headlights look, she pointed out a dipping sauce recipe taped to the sneeze guard.
That foolproof sauce, a combination of six ingredients, including garlic, green onion, cilantro and sesame paste, made all the difference. Cooked udon noodles were also there, free for the taking.
Heaping plates with our proteins and myriad other items came out quickly, along with warm pots of broth.
Electric burners are built into each place setting, and once turned on, the broth boiled fast. Then you can start dropping in your items. The chicken and pork were sliced thin and rolled up, cooking almost immediately. The sliced fish also needed little time in the pot.
I took it for tilapia, but Chang later told me it was sewin, or brown trout.
“I think it’s better than tilapia,” said Chang, and I’d agree.
The plate included a huge number of other items, some recognizable, others not. Favorites included big pieces of cabbage, enoki mushroom, a fish ball, a spongy tofu square, fried bean curd skin and mock crab.
The plate also featured baby carrots, a cocktail-sized sausage and a clam. Everything tasted amazing dipped in the sauce we’d mixed up at the sauce bar.
If there were any quibbles, it would be that the broccoli was cut too big. I also could have done without the strange beef ball which had something gelatinous poking out of it.
One member of our party wasn’t interested in a hot pot, and turned to the $6.95 lunch specials, ordering the chicken with broccoli. He was the only one who didn’t leave happy.
He complained that his broccoli was basically raw, so I offered to cook it in my pot, but he declined. He also didn’t care for how thinly sliced the chicken was. His meal came with a crisp, flaky egg roll, but it didn’t have much filling. He also noticed that the fortune cookies were stale.
And boy, were they stale.
A delightful sweet treat at Mini Hot Pot is the bubble tea ($3.75), made with black tea and milk, and served with tapioca balls in a tall, plastic to-go cup.
Before coming to Madison, Chang owned a Chinese restaurant in Vernon Hills, Illinois. While hot pot originated in China, it was popularized in Japan, where it’s called shabu-shabu.
Soga was Madison’s first hot pot restaurant, opening on State Street in 2012. The city is apparently big enough for two, with Mini Hot Pot doing a strong business since it opened.
It’s easy to see why it’s so popular. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and most importantly, the food’s delicious. And even though it may seem like you’re doing some of the kitchen’s work, it’s well worth it.