An Appetite for AdventureMar 01, 2022 ● By Amy Richmond
If you are looking for your next culinary adventure, you may want to put HaiDiLao Hot Pot, at 9244 Prestmont Place, Suite 200, in Frisco at the top of your list. The experience is guaranteed to pique your curiosity, include a surprise or two and generate unforgettable memories – all key ingredients for a fantastic dining expedition.
Although it’s not always immediately evident, I have a strong inclination toward such adrenaline-inducing ventures as white-water rafting, scuba diving, snow skiing, ziplining and rides that require shoes and jewelry to be removed prior to departure. Historically, however, my culinary-adventure side has never fully taken flight. There was a flicker of hope when a trip to Japan introduced me to the best-tasting chicken I have ever had, but a wild trip to a remote Japanese emergency room following the meal doused whatever flicker of adventure may have been ignited. Since then, I have approached Asian cuisine with some trepidation.
HaiDiLao Hot Pot, however, succeeded in bringing me out of my cautionary shell. What could have possibly shaken my aversion? Read on.
Initially, the mystique of HaiDiLao piqued my curiosity. I was hard-pressed to find a menu online, but reservations for the place were booked for days in advance. Social media celebrated HaiDiLao’s arrival even before it opened its doors last year, but there seemed to be a shroud of mystery around it. Or, perhaps my years of Asian-food avoidance had made me naïve (probably the latter). Regardless, a video review showed snippets of the dining adventure ahead – and I took the bait.
I made a reservation (yes, those are practically a necessity) a week in advance and was able to garner a 4:30 p.m. seating on a Saturday. That ended up being fortuitous as it allowed us time to get acclimated to the place without holding up the dinner crowd.
Upon our arrival, we took note of a small waiting room at the restaurant that harbored fresh flowers, complimentary tea and coffee, umbrellas (if needed), a flat-screen TV, karaoke booth, a Jenga game, a Blue Bell® ice cream freezer and free snacks would-be diners may enjoy while waiting for a table. Take my advice and save the snacks for later to ensure that you have room for your meal – but be sure to try them on the way out. The mints will have you wondering what flavor they are. Even the hostess couldn’t find an English translation to describe the traditional Chinese snacks. You simply have to taste them. Of course, for those not quite ready to take the leap, familiar snacks such as Teddy Grahams and Pringles are also available.
To the left of the waiting room, a playroom is visible. For every kid (or parent) who has endured a lengthy weekend wait for a table, this is a dream come true. Past that, three main dining rooms decorated with simple, light-wood paneling (reminiscent of rice paper walls) and brass trim create a calm front for the culinary adventure being experienced at each of the place’s lime-green booths. A red tassel hangs from each brass lamp that spotlights the main attraction: bubbling pots of liquid in the table (more on that later). When we arrived at our booth, we were presented with freshly laundered aprons and given a tablet for a menu. Due to our newbie status, the menu required explanation.
We could select from one to four pots of boiling liquid (listed as a “soup base”) in which to cook our food. Soup base options include green pepper, classic spicy, mala spicy, tomato, mushroom, pork bone, pork tripe and chicken, spicy pork and Thai Tom Yum Goong. They range in price from $4-$7. We opted for four soup bases: tomato, mushroom, pork bone and Thai Tom Yum Goong.
Next, we were instructed to add items to our virtual cart from others available – and the list seemed endless. Categories include New Dishes, Customer Favorites, Protein, Vegetables, Appetizers, Beverages, Combo and Seasoning. It took quite a while to read through it all. Thankfully, our server presented us with a plate of green grapes to munch on as we made our choices and offered some suggestions for sure-fire winners.
The “New Dishes” category housed such items as banded grouper filet, mini sausage, multi-layered tofu, beef aorta, basa fillet, marinated beef, dancing noodles and thousand-layer beef tripe. Having seen a preview of the dancing noodles, we decided we did not want to miss that show and added it to our cart.
The “Customer Favorites” list overlapped a bit with the New Dishes, but also included shrimp-stuffed gluten balls, chicken slices, Miyazaki A5 Wagyu ribeye, Angus beef, Kobe beef belly, USDA Choice Angus Ribeye, Angus beef tongue, Angus beef brisket, Angus boneless beef short ribs, Australian lamb shoulder and Kurobuta pork shoulder, which ranged in price from $9-$60. We chose the shrimp-stuffed gluten balls (also called shrimp paste, and highly recommended), Kobe beef belly (per our server’s recommendation) and Kurobuta pork shoulder. We had overcome one hurdle in our myriad options and forged ahead to the next category.
Some of the proteins listed were also included under Customer Favorites. Additional proteins itemized in this category were baby cuttlefish, white shrimp, mussels, frog (which was sold out during our visit), beef meatballs, fish roe balls, luncheon meat, imitation crab sticks, pork brain, quail egg, duck feet, duck intestine, chicken egg, fish tofu, duck tongue, pork stomach (also sold out) and a seafood platter. You can see how adventurous one can get here! Where else in Frisco can you find such an eclectic selection?
Before you judge me for my tamer choices, keep in mind I was in the process of breaking through a mental barrier. Who knows were my future culinary adventures may take me, but for this meal, we kept it simple with the aforementioned Customer Favorite protein selections. That said, we were thoroughly entertained by simply reading through the list of possible options.
Onward to the vegetable selections. These are divided into three sub-categories: tofu and noodles, root vegetables and leaf vegetables. Choices included bean curd sticks, tofu skin rolls, udon, egg noodles, rice cakes (Chinese-style), winter melon, Chinese yam, lotus root, kombu knots (seaweed), black fungus, bamboo shoots, radish, potato, Enoki mushroom, taro, broccoli, sweet corn and a mushroom platter. Once again, we kept it simple and selected egg noodles, potato, sweet corn and broccoli.
Next up: appetizers. From this section, we chose white rice, deep-fried steamed buns, fried cheese-stuffed shrimp balls and rice cakes with brown sugar. Our final choice was to select beverages. We were in the home stretch. Mixed drinks included margaritas, Mai Tais, an Old Fashioned and other cocktails listed on the specialty drink board. Beers ranged from Bud Light to Chinese Tsingtao. I opted for a Mai Tai and my husband tried Tsingtao beer for the first time. We leaned back from our huddle over the electronic menu with a sense of accomplishment and anticipation.
We were directed by our server to the Sauce Bar. The back wall of the Sauce Bar lists six sauce recipes, along with their recommended soup pairings and a table of allergen information. Below this are six containers of fruit and sides including fresh pineapple, oranges, green grapes and mustard-based American potato salad. There are more than 20 bowls of spices and sauces including black bean chili, oyster sauce, chive flower sauce, fermented bean curd sauce, olive oil, vinegar, soy sauce, fresh minced garlic, cilantro, pickled mustard stems and celery, just to name a few. Salt, sugar and other spices are available as well.
You can tell who the HaiDiLao first timers are by how they approach the Sauce Bar, take a step back and pause for a long while to take it all in before attempting to build their saucy creations. Between the menu choices and the Sauce Bar options, the permutation of possibilities is beyond mental calculation and a bit exhilarating. One could dine here over and over for weeks and never have the same meal twice.
By the time we created our respective sauces and returned to our booth, everything we had ordered was artfully presented at our table, and I was disappointed that we had missed the cheerful, music-playing robot that had brought it to our table.
Beginner lesson learned: Whatever you order comes to your table almost immediately, so order around the time you would like to eat it. For example, the rice cakes with brown sugar and the deep-fried steam buns were already at our table, hot and waiting. So, we sampled dessert first. The rice cakes were slightly crunchy on the outside but mostly soft with a slight sweetness to them. However, the deep-fried steam buns won the match for dessert. Imagine warm, airy cake, lightly fried in batter and dipped into sweetened condensed milk. Oh my! Be sure to save room for these at the end of your meal so you can enjoy them while they are hot.
We also ordered an appetizer of fried cheese-stuffed shrimp balls. Even if you claim to not like shrimp, these are a must-have. These decadent little balls of cheese-filled goodness did not last long. This diverted our attention to the remaining feast before us, and again the possibilities seemed endless. Each food item can be cooked in any one of the four bubbling soup bases in the middle of the table. Each item soaks up the flavors of its assigned soup, and the flavor game is a bit addictive. Our curiosity drove us to try as many different possibilities as we could think of, along with laughing at our lessons learned along the way.
One of those lessons was to learn how to use chopsticks (that proves how long this aversion to Asian food of mine has persisted). Surprisingly, I managed to pick up the basics very quickly, primarily because I was motivated by the food before me and the fact that there were no other utensils on the table. For others who are chopstick challenged, do not forgo this dining experience on those grounds. Chopsticks add to the adventure if you are not an expert and certainly provide comic relief.
Another lesson learned too late was to refer back to the menu for recommended cooking times. Our razor-thin slices of Kobe beef pork belly and Kurobuta pork shoulder cooked through in 15 seconds (with amazingly tasty results), but the potatoes and broccoli cooked three minutes (longer if you want to soak up more flavor). You almost need a panel of timers to keep track of it all, but it adds to the fun and experimentation.
Servers are always available to assist, such as one who one walked by our table and noticed our puzzled look over the pastry bag of shrimp paste. She immediately offered to create the shrimp balls for us with a set of chopsticks, a quick squeeze of the bag and a delicate twist of her wrist. Thank goodness I had not attempted that myself. Not long afterward, another server dressed in white athletic clothes and a reversed ballcap proceeded to take a small strip of dough and expertly stretch it into multiple strands of noodles in a mesmerizing noodle dance.
The entire experience, from beginning to end, was a multi-hour kaleidoscope of new, entertaining and delicious adventures. When we return, we will be more educated but no less exhilarated by the culinary journey that HaiDiLao Hot Pot provides.Frisco STYLE Magazine dining reviews are not scheduled with or paid for by the featured restaurant. All reviews are completed for the purpose of helping readers learn about and enjoy local dining options. Is there an area restaurant that you’d like us to review? Email us at [email protected].