Every time I return to the Nicole’s home town, Tianjin, I am reminded of one reason I love China.
I love this particular hot pot restaurant so much that I sometimes drift off and have inner conversations with myself about the various aspects of it’s greatness.
Hotpot is a staple part of the Bowden family diet. Back in Victoria, Sunday night is hotpot night. We’re always on the lookout for good hotpot when we travel, but so far we have not found anything that compares to Chinese hotpot.
We finally got our first taste of Chinese hotpot again when we arrived in Dali in January. In our week there, we returned to that particular hotpot restaurant two more times, and once to another hot pot establishment. It was good, very good, but only a primer for Haidilao. My mouth was already watering by the time we started descending into Tianjin Airport, and we were sitting down for our first meal there within a couple short hours of landing. In the couple months we were there, we ate at Haidilao about 10 times.
The thing that really makes a good hotpot is the dipping sauce, and Haidilao has got all the a sauces you need. First, you’ve got to have vinegar. Most people overlook this essential sauce, but a hotpot without a little bowl of vinegar is a total waste in my opinion. Next is the sesame sauce, another more obvious staple. Then I usually concoct a spicy mix, and a savory mix. I line them up strategically so that I can combine the vinegar with the right sauce without too much splash-over between the sauce bowls.
The veggies and meat are obviously important as well. However, I tend to evaluate them based more on texture and on how they hold the sauce than how they would taste otherwise. My favorite is probably the tofu skins for this reason.
For the soup base, we usually opt for half spicy and half other. This is the least important part for me, although I usually default to the spicy side. Haidilao now sells the soup base so you can eat at home. Lao Lao bought some for me so we could use it on non-Haidilao days, but to be honest it just isn’t the same as going to the restaurant.
Which leads me to the atmosphere and service at Haidilao. If it were just the food, Haidilao would be an easy 10/10 for me… but the service boosts Haidilao int another realm. The staff keeps a keen eye out for any possible way to make your experience better. The first time we went to Haidilao, Rae was a baby. The moment she started to get sleepy, two waitresses showed up carrying a baby cradle, which they placed beside the table and rocked her to sleep. Now they have worked their way into Rae’s heart by giving her little toys every time she comes in.
Once a button fell off my jacket in the restaurant. I quietly tied it back on with the remaining thread and then went to make my sauces… it wasn’t a big deal at all and I don’t know how anyone, including my family sitting right across from me, would have even noticed. But when I returned there was a waitress busily sewing the button back on!
Once we got there during the busy hours and we had to wait for a table… but instead of handing us a little pager and sending you on your way, we were seated you in a special area where we could play games and watch TV and were served free drinks and snacks while we waited.
We go to Haidilao in Tianjin so frequently I started to wonder if that’s why we got such good treatment. But when we stopped off in Guanzhou we thought we’d check out the local Haidilao and to see how it compared. Before the elevator doors were open, we were already greeted with such enthusiasm that I half thought that the Tianjin shop must have called down and told them we were coming! Rae, who is usually shy with new people, let go of Mom’s hand and took the host’s hand as they skipped off ahead to the table. She got a toy wand, and I saw her look across the room and see another little girl waving a similar wand. Their eyes met, and they did a little cheers motion to each other as if to say “Yes, we’re living the dream.”