Don’t be surprised when you find yourself the only soul dining at Four Seasons Hot Pot. With summer just beginning, Four Seasons will be as deserted as Santa’s Village. Despite the optimistic title, the 4-year-old restaurant is decidedly a winter-season refuge, appropriate and timely only when the air is nippy and a steaming pot just happens to be the perfect thing to defrost your frozen fingers and warm your frigid cheeks.
But I encourage you to go anyway. The restaurant’s jolly owner, a balding man who is himself unseasonably dressed in a suit and tie, will greet you, overjoyed that someone, anyone, has decided to patronize his establishment. You can sit anywhere, even in the VIP room, if you insist. But any seat in the immaculately clean, marble-adorned dining room is a good seat, especially the ones under the a/c vents, if you really want to get in a wintry mood.
There will be two menus, both laminated. One has a standard roster of Chinese-restaurant dishes that I imagine they don’t expect anyone to order from. The other lists raw ingredients that you will boil and swish around in metal vessels heated by your table’s induction stove.
But first you must choose the broths. Since this is a Mongolian hot-pot restaurant (the only one of its kind I’ve found in OC), your chosen cooking liquid will be more than just water. These are full-fledged soups, teeming with whole cloves of garlic, sliced ginger, dried lychees, berries and fistfuls of Chinese medicinal herbs that pervade the brew in a potpourri of cinnamon-y, cumin-y, anise-y flavors and smells.
Two kinds of broth will be needed to fill the bifurcated pot, which is designed like the proverbial yin and yang. Get the mild one for the yin, and the spicier one with a red chili-oil slick for the yang. Kindly refuse the lamb hot pot, even if the owner offers it to you at half-price. It’s a pre-prepared, Pepto Bismol-colored stew of lamb chunks hacked up from unidentifiable parts of the animal—bone, cartilage and bumpy skin still attached. What’s more, since this one’s ready-to-eat, it takes the fun out of the whole DIY experience.
You want to have full control of what you put in and take out of the pot—and for those of you new to the experience, there are a few do’s and don’ts.
If you order any type of meatball—whether it is cuttlefish, fish or the chewy beef—deposit it into the roiling brew as soon as you get it. The longer the balls boil, the fluffier they become.
Proteins such as beef and pork—or anything else that’s sliced to a deli-thinness—cooks instantly. Fish them out the second they change color. Then roll them in the dipping sauce, made from a mix of green onions, garlic, chili paste and fermented shrimp.
The Manila clams are parboiled and need only to be reheated. And you’ll know the squid is done when it curls up and turns snowy-white. The thickly cut fish can conceivably be left to boil for eternity. But the firm-fleshed chunks actually take maybe only twice as long as the calamari. Both are foolproof and forgivingly tender, even when overcooked.
Use care with the delicate and sweet scallops: Rest them on the slotted ladle, then lower them into the liquid, being careful not to jostle them from their perch. If they should become lost in the broth, they’ll sink down to the depths, never to be found again.
Once you’ve mastered the proteins, move on to the vegetables. Of all the greens, the ton ho is the best suited for hot pot. This weed-like vegetable with thick stalks and frilly fronds wilts into a palate-cleansing peppery snap. The cai ngot, or what the restaurant calls “green tender,” is also standard hot-pot fodder—a sturdy leaf that tastes like a cross between romaine lettuce and baby spinach.
From the roster of mushrooms, the king oyster lords over the standard criminis or shitakes. Cut into bevels, it offers a chewy resilience that no amount of frolicking in the hot tub will soften.
Order a plate of the fried-tofu triangles and enjoy them as the flavor sponges they are. Unlike the uncooked cubes also on offer, they won’t ever disintegrate. But do not pass up the silky bean curd, which is actually not tofu at all, but rather steamed egg custard curdled into a cylinder and cut into jiggly wheels. Treat them with the same gentle respect as the scallops.
A piece of advice about the rice noodles: Do not attempt to cook them. If you do, you’ll never recover the slippery things before they liquefy into mush. Instead, just put them into your soup bowl cold. Then pour hot broth over them. They’ll soften on contact.
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When you’ve finished slurping soup, swishing meat, feeling convivial and satisfied about your decision to eat here despite the season we’re in, dab the sweat away from your brow and cool off with a cold beer. It is summer, after all.
Four Seasons Hot Pot, 12119 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 636-7168. Open daily; call for hours. Soup base, $3.50 each; meats, $2.99-$7.99; vegetables, $1.99-$2.99; noodles, $1.99-$2.99. Beer and wine.
This review appeared in print as "’Tis the Season? For steaming-hot soup? Not really, but the DIY Mongolian soups at Four Seasons Hot Pot are so much fun you won’t care it’s summer."