Dinner Out At Hai Di Lao In Arcadia

Dinner Out this week is in Arcadia. We had lots of posts about your favorite Arcadia restaurants. The Derby got a lot of nods and so did Xiao Long Bao purveyor, Din Tai Fung. But, I was intrigued by a restaurant that I'd never heard of, Hai di Lao. This restaurant, located on the promenade level of the Westfield Santa Anita (yes, the mall!) is the first and only US location of a popular chain in China.

People come here for hot pot. Boiling urns of soup are placed before each diner in a special well, that both heats the soup and vents the steam away. So far, not intriguing enough for you? This restaurant also has a level of service that I've not seen before Hai Di Lao. Diners are given aprons to protect their clothes because eating here means cooking meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles in the hot broth. There's also a make your own sauce bar, after you cook your food, you dip it in the sauce. All this swishing and dipping can get messy, thus the aprons. If you like to take photos of your food (guilty!) the server will give you a tiny plastic bag for your phone and then later a special cloth to wipe down your phone or your eyeglasses.

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Hai Di Lao is so popular, you can wait up to three hours during peak time. There's a special waiting area outside, with games for the kiddies and free snacks. I saw a big pile of fortune cookies, but Eric, one of Hai Di Lao's managers told me when there's a big crowd waiting, the restaurant sends out skewers of meat, or bowls of fruit to make the wait more bearable.

I had heard all about this when a friend of mine wrote a blog about Hai Di Lao  E*Star LA called Hai Di Lao, the Disneyland of hot pot and the first picture on her blog was the "must have" dancing noodle. If you've ever had hand pulled noodles, you know how good those toothsome pasta strands can be; but the dancing noodle is about pulling the noodles with inimitable style. Think Olympic ribbon dancer but with pasta!

So, that's all the reasons to go to Hai Di Lao, but we haven't yet actually mentioned the food. All the bells and whistles aren't worth much if the food isn't worth eating.

Hai Di Lao offers five different soup bases for the hot pots. I tried the Sichuan spicy pot. You can see the chillis, garlic and a date (!) in the soup, but after tasting it, there's some other "secret" ingredient and the restaurant wouldn't say what and wouldn't let us into the kitchen to film any action there. (Eric said, too many proprietary secrets in the kitchen.) This is apparently the American version of Hai Di Lao's popular spicy soup, catering to our more delicate palates. But if it's not spicy enough for you, the kitchen can send out additional spice.

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Picking your soup is the easy part, picking what you're cooking in the hot pot, more difficult. There are so many choices. Five types of meat, gorgeous seafood, including scallops, mussels and clams in the shell and organic vegetables. First timers should probably order one of the combos; a platter of fresh vegetables and noodles and another platter of seafood or the meat of your choice.

Now to the eating, each ingredient has a different cook time; vegetables like carrots could take several minutes, a shrimp will take barely a minute before it's ready to pull out of the soup, dip in your sauce and enjoy. Speaking of the sauces, the make your own sauce bar might also be confounding to the newbie (that's me!)

Eric gave me the tour and pointed to the hand drawn signs over the bar that suggest the combinations of sesame sauce, house made soy sauce, garlic, herbs and a special house secret BBQ sauce to make the most popular sauces. There's far more on the bar that what I just listed and infinite ways to customize your sauces. Once I got my sauces, I finally got my first bite. I dropped a bundle of enoki mushrooms into the boiling broth. They didn't take long to cook and I eagerly pulled them out of the soup. The spicy broth had now permeated the delicate enoki and I enjoyed the burn of the spicy broth while chewing the mushrooms. I then dropped a scallop still in its beautiful shell into the boiling broth. Eric suggested cooking each ingredient individually, but that meant a lot of wait time. No problem, also on the sauce bar, a selection of snack items; a hot peanut dish, prepared green beans, orange wedges and more. Before I could try the scallop, Eric squeezed into the soup, the popular shrimp paste. Think meatballs but made with shrimp and other secret ingredients.

The little globules cook quickly and bob to the top of the broth. I grabbed one with my chopsticks to eat. it was delicious with a texture different from cooking and eating the fresh shrimp. It all might have been a satisfying meal but then here comes the Dancing Noodle. He comes out with a tray full of flattened pasta ribbons. At this point, they're maybe two inches wide and eight inches long. He gingerly starts to stretch that ribbon until it becomes much longer and thinner. He twirls the pasta overhead and even snaps the ribbon within an inch of the diner's nose, but pulls it back before contact. The show is too brief and he bundles that long length of pasta, and folds the strands until he can pull them apart and drop into the soup.

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