something brewing....
something brewing....

The Red Pot: A DIY Experience

The Swiss and French call it fondue; Japanese refer to it as shabu-shabu (literally 'swish swish'). Over in Garden Grove, in a space previously occupied by Four Seasons, the term they use is hot pot. Cooking meats and vegetables in boiling liquid is an interactive, even social experience. Their pots aren't actually red, and that's good because otherwise we're talking bad feng shui.

How do you try and conduct a review of a place where the guest doubles as chef? You become more critical of everything else. In addition, one must realize that their meal is only as good as the ingredients used and way it's prepared.

After a Disney queue-like wait for a table on a previous visit, we learn that reservations are accepted up to a day in advance. Or, just make an effort to arrive before the 6 p.m. dinner rush. Waiting can be done at the bar, but don't expect cocktails; beer and wine only at a forgotten counter, where a single flat screen broadcasts to the handful of chairs around it.

Golden and burnt sienna walls warm up the space while the stone tile floor adds an earthy quality. Most everything else is dark, from furniture to dishware. A nice place to sit is along the windowed wall, far enough away from the front door, yet close to the restrooms and sauce bar. Start off requesting a glass of the sweet tea; better than McDonalds and at no cost. You'll need that sweet jolt for the task ahead of you.

on your mark...
on your mark...

We start with selecting a soup base. There's seven, and smaller groups can choose two, larger groups three. The goat flavor for an extra ten bucks sounds good, but we opt for miso and herbal soups. With curry, vegetarian, spicy herbal, and plain also available, the bases seem covered. All that's left is deciding what to throw in the pot.

All-you-can-eat may seem like a misnomer when the ordering sheet lists three rounds of food, but they have no problem with requesting more of something after the fact. Categories for meat, seafood, noodles and vegetables cover a spectrum of choices. Consider that with each round, the portion size for items ordered gets smaller, and you can plan accordingly. We found the egg noodles to be filling, so the vermicelli or glass ones might make more sense. If seafood is your thing, attack the shrimp and mussels to get your money's worth. Internal organs galore await with pork stomach, intestine and blood. Or go the pho route with beef tripe, tendon or balls. Conservative tastes will stick to the thin-sliced lamb, beef, chicken or pork. Mushrooms, bean curds and greens offer up that daily dose of vitamins. For a little extra, unlisted sides of rice are also available.

sweet or heat?
sweet or heat?

While you wait for the mise en place, there's just enough time to stop by their sauce bar. Shallow dishes can be filled with an assortment of sauces and toppings to flavor your meal further. Helpful combinations are posted for your reference, but diners get a little creative. A recommended equation of satay sauce + sweet sauce + garlic + house special makes for a saccharin flavor. If you stick to a single taste and infuse it with some combination of chopped jalapenos, onions, green onions and cilantro, you'll get a nice hit of heat and spice. Or just add in some mala oil to whatever sounds good for instant heat.

One thing we couldn't help but notice was how attentive servers were. Refilling drinks, busing empty plates, monitoring the heating element, and overall just checking on our progress. They were all in good spirits and spoke excellent English. Having that solid communication is a bonus when newbies are navigating unchartered hot pot waters. It puts them at ease, making them more likely for repeat business.

Between rounds, ladle some of the broth into your bowl for heartier flavors. It just tastes better as the meal progresses. Don't forget to 'hook' the spoons when you aren't using them, either, or else it will drown into the boiling abyss. Soup refills all come from the same pot of plain base, so make the most of the initial broth. For $20 a person, it's a steal for anyone that isn't accident prone.

The Red Pot, 12119 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 636-7168.

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