What is it like to eat at Hai Di Lao, the Ferrari of Chinese hot pot restaurants, to assemble your dipping sauce from an infinite bank of possibilities, to swish your bits of meat and fish through your own pot of seasoned broth instead of having to endure a communal pot that may not be precisely adjusted to your taste? Do the endless pitchers of watermelon juice signify abundance, or are they merely refreshing? Is it possible for glossy Chinese pop to be played any more loudly? Is the proper uniform for hot pot abundance really a little black dress? And do you need to tip the noodle dancer?
When you talk to businesspeople back from quick trips to Shanghai or Beijing, the restaurant they all want to tell you about is Hai Di Lao, a glittery 75-outlet chain specializing in hot pot, the spicy Sichuan equivalent of shabu-shabu. They will tell you about the lines at Hai Di Lao, the free neck massages and manicures available to customers waiting for a table, and the plastic bags they give you so that you don't splash soup on your iPhone. There are video games to play, magazines to read, noodle dancers to watch and snacks to nibble on.
Hai Di Lao hot pots have a good reputation, and nobody actually complains, but you sometimes sense that the moment when customers are seated, when they leave the pleasures of mass distraction for the more sedate pleasures of the table, is almost a disappointment. Everybody talks about the restaurant; not everybody talks about the food.
Still, as restaurant capital has been pouring from China into the San Gabriel Valley, it was inevitable that Hai Di Lao would show up eventually — you sometimes hear the chain described as China's masters of customer service. And sure enough, the first local Hai Di Lao sprang up last summer in a new outdoor annex to the Westfield Santa Anita complex in Arcadia, which is an attempt to nudge the old-school mall toward the popular Grove/Downtown Disney paradigm, down to the children's train that toots around the plaza on weekends.
Hai Di Lao is the one Chinese place in a center better known for Red Robin, Dave & Busters and the Cheesecake Factory, but it is impressive, a soaring space dominated by a kind of abstracted cage — the restaurant equivalent of the bird's nest stadium in Beijing, enclosing a second dining room. I have never seen a manicurist, a masseuse or banks of video games, although there is a rack of glossy Chinese fashion magazines just inside the door, outside tables to lounge at and pitchers of ice water.
But hot pot may be a universal language. Your waitress will note your choice of broth on her iPad — I like the "pickle" broth flavored with kimchi, but the tomato broth and the spicy Sichuan broth are popular too. You will be steered toward one of the combination plates, thinly sliced beef or lamb to swish through your individual pot of broth, plus tofu, sturdy nappa cabbage leaves, lettuce, sweet potato and a fistful of noodles. You can negotiate your way to a seafood platter, which will include mussels, clams and scallops in their shells, a few fillets of whitefish, and some squid and octopus cut up in interesting ways. You will want some shrimp balls, which are unusually fluffy here.
If the waitress entrusts you with her iPad, you can also hunt down a bitter green called "crown daisy" (I've always known the vegetable as chrysanthemum leaf), which cuts nicely through the richness of the broth, although you should never let it cook for more than 30 seconds or so. You may also be able to find Hai Di Lao's famous specialties, including duck intestines, blood tofu, snowflake fatty beef, or "urinating beef balls," so called because they are filled with hot soup, but I have never located them on the Arcadia menu. It is easy to see why a dish called "urinating beef balls" might not translate.
And then you swish, boil, dip, simmer, slurp, swish and repeat, until finally the lithe, athletic noodle dancer shows up to do his routine with a lump of dough, possibly nicking you on the back of the head when the noodles stretch too quickly. He flicks them into your soup. You are full and happy. The hot pot satiety has kicked in.
This is the point where I should probably point out that Hai Di Lao is not exactly the only Sichuan hot pot restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley; that hot pot is actually something of a fad at the moment. The Little Sheep chain, which is all over the Southland and just opened a new location in Pasadena last week, is also a Chinese import. LuGi in San Gabriel is excellent. Mon Land, also in San Gabriel, is probably my favorite — the patio is a wonderful place to pass an evening. Friends love Jazz Cat, Boiling Point and Hot Pot Hot Pot, which lean toward the Taiwanese taste. Many of these restaurants feature duo pots, infinitely customizable individual pots or small but choice selections of Mongolian lamb dumplings. All of them are cheaper than Hai Di Lao, sometimes significantly so.
None of them features a noodle dancer.
400 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia (in the Westfield Santa Anita mall), (626) 445-7232, haidilao.taxi5.us/
Hot pot combinations range from $11 to $30.
11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking.