Monday, January 27, 2014

Huat Pot Eat-All-You-Can Opens in San Juan

Whenever I hear "healthy" shabu-shabu, images of a bland tasting broth, unseasoned meat, and a crap-load of vegetables come to mind. I think this image is mainly what has turned me off from entering hotpot restaurants. That, and because I have yet to find a shabu-shabu place I actually like. So when I went to try Huat Pot's Hotpot Eat All You Can (P688) in San Juan, I was skeptical on whether or not it would be something I'd appreciate.

As it turns out, this place is something I'd like to appreciate over and over again!

Derived from the Hokkien greeting, "Huat ah!" which means, "to wish for prosperity," you can find Huat Pot along P. Guevarra, at the Metropoint Center (where Rustan's Fresh is) right opposite Pegi Waffles. Parking can be a pain in the butt, but Jericho and I were lucky to have found a free spot right in front of the building. The hotpot restaurant is up on the second floor.

Can I just say, I love the colors of the place! There are big tables for families or big groups or friends, as well as more intimate booths by the side for those who want a bit of privacy while they eat. The coral red booths and turquoise blue tables make for such a pretty color combination, and while I was editing all the images, was happy to find out it also makes prettier pictures, too!

The Taiwanese Huat Pot is different from most hotpot places since there are no platters to choose from - everything is buffet style. So you can really customize your whole experience - from the drinks, to what goes into your hotpot, to your sauce, and dessert! Admittedly, I found this quite daunting (there were so many choices to be made!), but this little cheat sheet helped make my eat-all-you-can experience a lot smoother.

Step 1: Choose Soup Up to 2 Flavors

You have four soup flavors to choose from: Huat Pot Special (Original), Sate (BBQ), Oden (Veggie), and Mala (Spicy). Jericho and I shared a pot of Mala, which was only mildly spicy, while our friend Len had the Huat Pot Special. The soups themselves taste rather bland because they have no MSG, so you basically flavor the soup with the stuff you put in the pot.

Step 2: Choose Your Drinks

Huat Pot has a wide variety of drinks for you to choose from. Enjoy a glass of orange juice, your favorite soda, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or beer! I kept going back again and again for the orange juice - it just seemed liked the healthiest choice - well, kind of.

Step 3: Make Your Sauce

I was excited and overwhelmed to discover that you make your own sauce to go along with your hotpot. There were so many combinations one can make with all the ingredients. Jonas Ng, one of the owners and the chef, lent me a hand with coming up with a spicy dipping sauce with coriander, sate sauce, ginger, peanut paste, sesame paste, and I have no idea what else. The end result was really good with just the right amount of heat to make me happy.

Step 4: Pick Your Food

If I thought the sauce was daunting, the choices of vegetables and meats to put in the hot pot was ridiculous! Ridiculous in a great way! I started with the vegetables, getting my fill of leafy greens, corn, tofu, and a handful of glass noodles for the soup.

Since this is a Taiwanese hotpot, expect a lot of balls! I was chuckling to myself, staring at all the literal balls to the wall. I got a lot of the lobster balls, kikiam, egg dumplings, fish with coriander balls, and fish tofu, along with a Taiwanese fish roll and pork roll that was pretty good. There's some pieces of chicken in there somewhere, but since I have that almost every day, I was more interested in all those glorious balls. Heh. Balls. There are also pieces of crab, shrimp, and fish that also to help to flavor your soup of choice.

For the carnivores, there's a meat locker with thin strips of beef, pork, and lamb for you to choose from. The trick is to dunk the meat into the soup for around 10-15 seconds 'til it's cooked through, dunk it into your custom-made sauce, and enjoy! I especially liked the lamb, the gaminess went well with my sauce.

I went back to the table with my veggies, balls, and meat, pretty happy with my selection and ready to get a'cookin'.

Like I said, I got myself a lot of balls to try. And half a crab to lend my spicy soup a bit more flavor. The Taiwanese fish and pork rolls were interesting, and I absolutely loved the lobster ball and the taro lobster ball!

As for the veg, it was mostly mustard leaves, more coriander, pieces of squash, taro, corn, baby corn, spring onions, mushrooms, and watercress.

Step 5: Wait for the Soup to Boil

You can have your server turn up the heat for you once you're settled with your first round of things to put in the hotpot. Looking at everything set out on the table got me all excited for what was going to happen next. Besides, the eating, of course.

Step 6: Start Healthy Cooking!

Drop in all your balls first (heh) as well as the seafood and wait a few minutes for them to cook through. Then start putting all the vegetables in starting with the corn, baby corn, squash, and taro, followed by the leafy greens last so they don't completely wilt into oblivion.

A Taiwanese saying goes, "Where there is a wisp of smoke from the kitchen chimney, there will be lurou fan." While there may be no chimney in sight, you can enjoy a not-so-healthy bowl of lorou fan, a Taiwanese adobo-like dish with slices of pork and pork fat, while waiting for your hotpot to, erm, mature. This was a bit too salty (and fatty!) for my taste.

Once the vegetables have wilted, scoop up some of the soup, balls, meat, and vegetables, and start enjoying your hard work. This is all best eaten when you dip each piece into your custom sauce before stuffing it in your gob, drinking the soup bit-by-bit to appreciate all the flavors. You can also go the lazy route and mix the sauce in with your bowl, but I think it just defeats the purpose of having a dipping sauce.

The best part about the hotpot buffet? Doing it all over again! The servers will refill your soup when it's running low, so you don't have to worry about trying to fit everything into one hotpot.

Step 7: Don't Forget Dessert!

You can cleanse your palate between each round of hotpot concoctions with fresh pieces of fruit. Not only are they super pretty to take picture of, they're fresh, delicious, and good for you, too!

The dessert I kept going back for were the Magnum bars. Yes people, the buffet also comes with unlimited Magnum bars. As many as your greedy, greedy heart desires. Mine desired three that day. They also have unlimited taho with your choice of syrup: vanilla, ginger, pandan, or lemongrass. I tried a little bit of the lemongrass, but the purist in me enjoyed the vanilla a lot more.

Step 8: Come Back!

I went into a 5-hour food coma after coming home from Huat Pot. I had such a great time, I wanted to go back the very next day! Jericho and I ended up polishing off most of what we ordered, which is great as we found out that Huat Pot urges it's customers to avoid wasting food or you get taxed with 50% surcharge.

When mucking around San Juan for lunch or dinner, skip the overcrowded Greenhills and pay P. Guevarra street a visit and try the eat-all-you-can  at Huat Pot! I started out hesitant about the healthy shabu-shabu concept, but ended up enjoying this more than most hotel buffets I've been to. Thank you to the very entertaining Jonas Ng and Mike Tayag for coming up with this, and at such an affordable price, too! Loved your balls! The ones flown in from Taiwan, I mean. I am definitely going back and wearing my stretchy pants the next time around!

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Huat Pot
+63 2 650 3091
+63 915 480 5500
2/F Metropoint Center,
P. Guevarra cor. Wilson st.,
Greenhills, San Juan