Review: Hot Pot City

Completely updated/rewritten 11/2012

Welcome to cold season in Portland.

Hot Pot City

Hot Pot City photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Hot Pot City is a constant for many of us, especially in the chilly, gray winter months in Portland. It’s warm, it’s soothing, it’s steamy – perfect medicine for the colds and stuffed sinuses that our climate seems to encourage.

Billing itself as Portland’s only Taiwanese Hot Pot Restaurant, it is a casual “all-you-can-eat” type of affair, with a distinctively traditional and healthy Chinese twist. Since 2004 it’s been a classic hole-in-the-wall for ravenous college students, little old Chinese ladies who lunch, downtown office workers and other food lovers. Asians and Non-Asians alike line up at lunch hour which can get quite crowded – get there early or expect a bit of a wait.

It works like this: a long counter for dining holds individual heating elements for each diner’s hot pot (table seating is also available for groups). Sit down at one of the counter seats and choose your broth from a variety that includes Mild Vegetables and Chinese Herbs, Spicy Szechuan Ma-la, Thai Style Hot and Sour, Xiang Cai with Chinese Cilantro and Preserved Eggs, Meat Soup – long boiled clear soup of bones and broth, and even one with kimchi. You mix your own dipping sauces from condiments at the buffet. It is always clean and well stocked, and though the choices vary from day to day, many are standards. During lunch there are bowls of paper-thin sliced beef, chicken and pork, alongside thick chunks of fragrant boneless chicken thighs marinated in ginger, onion, and soy sauce, or sometimes in bright yellow curry paste. Seasoned meatballs are another perennial favorite, while other “alternative” meats such as tripe and liver make occasional appearances (fear not, those are always clearly labeled). There are usually seafood offerings as well, such as cod fillets, small whole blue crabs (which are difficult to pick the meat from), prepared squid strips, or other shellfish – even “Krab” sticks.

A real treat are the little golden bundles of fried wonton stuffed with ground turkey, vegetables, and seasonings. When I asked the name, the server looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “fried wonton.” Not exactly the Chinese name I was looking for, but correct. Regardless, the fried bundles mix nicely with the broth and form toothsome yet silky and delicate soup dumplings.

Vegetarians and even vegans will be happy here. You can always expect at least two kinds of tofu, both cut into large 2″ cubes: a fresh soft kind, and one labeled “frozen,” which upon further research is actually what the Chinese call “thousand layer tofu” – tofu that has been freeze-dried and reconstituted. It has an almost bread-like texture, and it makes a wonderful dense sponge for soaking up the hot pot flavors.

Hot Pot City Portland - buffet

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Vegetable options are also based on the seasons and availability at the market. Greens such as large cleaned spinach leaves, flavorful chrysanthemum stalks, and tiny crunchy pea shoots are always bright and fresh. There are raw onion slices, cilantro, broccoli florets, button mushrooms, and sometimes things like taro root, shiitake mushrooms, mung bean sprouts, bitter melon rounds, and hearty half-moon slices of vibrant orange squash. Pickled cabbage often makes an appearance, too.

Noodle choices include thin vermicelli rice noodles and thick udon or mein type wheat noodles. A friendly diner sitting next to me once explained that the noodles are often added to the hot pot last to soak up the now concentrated flavors. Although not all diners do this, it is now my favorite way to end the meal.

When your soup arrives it is a ritualistic process: watch how others do it. Add some food to the hot pot and let it cook, remembering that veggies will take less time than meat. After a while, fish the cooked food out with the little wire scoop or ladle they give to each diner, put the cooked food into a holding bowl, add new food to the pot, pick up cooked food from your bowl, dip or mix it with the sauce, eat, and repeat.

It becomes a rhythm: food goes in, food comes out, more food goes in, and eat. Easy. Once going, the hot pot bubbles and steams like a witch’s cauldron, and at times threatens to spill over the top. Staff will come by regularly to adjust the temperature on the burner, and will top off the dissolving liquid as necessary.

Something else you should know: Hot Pot City has other things that are not on the menu, which can be ordered for a dollar or two per serving. These include all kinds of sea foods such as whole head-on shrimp, oysters, in-shell scallops, sea snails, special cuts of meat, raw egg, or traditional preserved duck egg. This brings me to one complaint: it’s difficult to know what else they serve and servers generally don’t tell you. You have to end up playing a guessing game of “do you have…”. Service is attentive, but not always proactive and can be downright grumpy at times. You’ve been warned.

Buffet

The prices have risen over the years, but for $8.99 at lunch or $14.95 at dinner, it’s a true all you can eat bargain.  Tea is included in the price, while soft drinks are available self-serve. Dinners offer more choices in meats and seafood, including things such as fish cakes and delectable and tender beef meatballs. While it is still a bargain, given the ingredients and amount of food, it hardly seems worth the extra money unless you plan on eating nothing but oysters or shrimp. There are no desserts that I know of, but there is a “regular” menu of greasy standards such as Kung-Pao beef and sweet-and-sour shrimp, but these are not special.

No, what’s special here is the hot pot. It’s a casual, inexpensive and very authentic dish that is perfectly suited for Portland’s climate.

  • Address: 1975 SW 1st Ave. Portland, OR. 97201 Map
  • Phone: 503-224-6696
  • Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-4pm, Dinner daily 5-9:30pm. Sat, Sun and Holidays: 12:30pm – 4pm
  • Website: N/A
  • Happy Hour: N/A
  • Reservation Policy: N/A
  • Noise Level: moderate/high on busy nights
  • Price: A bargain, especially for lunch
  • Social: N/A

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Jill-O says

    I love this place and I go as often as I can. They usually have the beef meatballs at lunch, though, not only at dinner. Though there IS a large selection of seafood at dinner not found at lunch, I agree, I think lunch is a better deal. Though once at dinner, I had a great time eating lots of little clams…yum. One thing I almost always do is take a large pile of minced garlic from the sauce-making station and plop it right in my soup…great for what ails ya. And, btw, there’s plenty of parking there too, another great thing about it.

    PFG went there about a year ago, here were the comments:
    http://portlandfood.org/index.php?showtopic=531&hl=Hot Pot City&st=40

  2. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Thanks Athens, I appreciate your comments.

    I “discovered” HPC, (I say “discovered” because it’s not like I was Lewis and Clark out there…they already had lots of loyal customers, they just haven’t gotten a lot of press for some odd reason…) as I used to work across the park from it – it was a horrible greasy Chinese place before that. In an area of town that was nowheresville for dining choices, I was psyched.

    Anyway, glad you enjoyed your meal there…

    Jill-O, thanks for the garlic tip…I hadn’t thought of that one!

  3. Athens says

    What a wonderful write up! You have such an enjoyable writing style and I’m especially glad to have discovered this awesome little place thanks to you!

  4. zekimus says

    yes, love this place, too. have never done this before. funny strip mall location, but would be fun to go with big group and sit at the “bar”. great friendly service.

  5. linda says

    I read about this in portland magazine. But could someone tell me what NICE hotels are nearby? husband and I want to go to portland for the weekend for our anniversary.

  6. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Well it depends what you mean by “nearby.” Downtown Portland is a small place – you can walk from one end to the other in about 30 minutes, plus the streetcar is only a block away from Hot Pot City and runs all the way to NW Portland. Also, like all buses downtown, the streetcar is free.

    I am partial to the Governor hotel which is right on the streetcar line but is closer to the Pearl district than HPC (not a bad thing really), Hotel Lucia and Hotel Vintage Plaza are also right downtown and near public transportation. I think your closest hotel to Hot Pot City is the Riverplace hotel which is about 5 blocks away, and has a prime waterfront park location. Honestly, there is not much to look at or do near Hot Pot City, unless you want to hang out on the Portland State University Campus or be able to take an easy stroll to the Farmers Market on Saturday. Regardless, Downtown is small so nearby means just about anywhere downtown…

  7. linda says

    i really like the governor hotel idea, but how close is it to powells ( husband has never been there).

  8. notfedup says

    Just had lunch there today with two newbies, Linda and Dr. Wayne. The latter is a Jewish vegetarian who found plenty to choose from during this holiday period. At the end of the meal, he shook my hand, declared it perhaps the finest restaurant experience he had ever enjoyed, and vowed to become a regular.

    Have you ever noticed after having lunch there that you get this euphoric feeling that lasts all afternoon?

  9. pdxbali says

    I love, love, love this place. My husband and I go there on rainy Saturdays and eat far too much. I agree that you feel great all day after eating at Hot Pot City!

  10. SeanLinXi says

    I spent a year in China. After dealing with the reverse culture shock, feet on the ground, Hot Pot City is a great place to take me back. The food is good and flavors pretty authentic. If you need some more ‘ma’ (numbing flavor) in your ‘mala’ broth, you can ask for some extra huajiao to add to yours. Yummmmmmmmmmmm.

  11. pdxyogi says

    Thanks for the update. I’ve yet to go, and this serves as my reminder. I hope weekends are better than “fair”, as you say. I’d rather “fare” better. But that’s just me.

  12. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Eat, Shoots, Leaves pdxyogi, thanks for pointing that out. I FARE better with an editor (mine must have been snoozing after eating too much at HPC yesterday)…

    Anyway, I’ve found getting there at 11 am, no later than 11:30 or after 1:30 PM generally has little to no waiting times.

  13. averilpdx says

    I love this place as well. I can’t imagine why there aren’t more of these type of places in PDX. I would kill to have one up on Fremont in the semi-wasteland of mediocre choices we’ve got up there. Maybe I should open one…

  14. estee says

    I was there for lunch today. They have raised the price for $0.50 more which was not a big deal as long as they provided good customer services. Their services suck big time. especially the waitress !

  15. Disappointed says

    Lousy food
    Lousy bathroom.
    Lousy service
    Lousy restaurant
    Never usually make reviews but had to make this one..

  16. Hsu says

    So that was my first time to go to this Hot Pot City. I did not know how the store works… but when I entered the store, I saw 3 empty desks, and a few people sitting around. My friends and I saw the “waiting” sign. At first, we want to ask the waiters if we should get a ticket to wait or what. We waved at them, but no one replied. They just saw us, and turned away. Poor service. We tried to call on them for several more times, but same thing happened. So, we decided to get a table ourselves, since there are three empty tables. Then, still, no waiter came to us. They just stared at us. Two of my friends directly approached one of the waiter, and ask her if she can serve us, but she started to be talking really rude. IF she talked to us nicely and told us earlier that we should sign up on a paper on their desk, we would gladly do so. However, that two waiters said nothing to welcome us or did anything to inform us. They then started to blame on us and shout at us. This is so ridiculous and rude. My friends and I ended up shouting them back and just left the store. We traveled a long way to go to the store and we got “THIS” kind of poor service. They told us to leave if we didn’t want to wait. But the point is… we will wait if they told us earlier of what we should do in order to be in the queue. WTH?!?!I will never go again.When we told this prb to my frd’s relative, who lives around Portland, they also said that they only went there for once, and never go again because of the poor service. If their store opens in HK, they cant even survive for a month!!!! They will be close due to whole bunch of complaints!!! So my advice:never go to this store again!

  17. Heather says

    My friends and I went to eat lunch at hot pot city. A COCKROACH came out from underneath the burner, so we killed it and placed it in a napkin. When we confronted the lady (owner) she said “O yeah” and took the napkin out of my hand and threw it away then said the meal is for free.

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