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Haidilao Hot Pot is the new trendy go-to hot pot spot in the ever-populated Jamboree Diamond Plaza in the heart of Chinese Irvine at Jamboree and Alton.
This restaurant caters to younger, well-heeled Chinese immigrants, although you can find some older folks (like me), and a few non-Chinese dotting the crisp, clean, marbled tables.
The walls are imprinted with red-orange and turquoise-blue maze-like lines that brings a certain vibrancy to the setting. Pillars are festooned with three-inch tiled flowers of the same hue, inserting a little old-school charm to the visuals.
Tables are pressed very closely together in neat lines, so if you are one who has secrets to share, or you are loud and boisterious, you might want to skip this one. However, most of the young Chinese diners are silent throughout their dinners, consumed by cell phones, so the restaurant is peacefully hushed and no one is really paying attention if you like to talk.
Haidilao also adds a few interesting gimmicks that make sense and might please eaters seeking a unique experience. Diners are handed black aprons embroidered with the same orange-red of the walls to fend off any broth splashing out of the hot pot, which is set in a square cut-out at the center of each table. You will also be handed small rectangular plastic bags built exactly the same size as your cell phone, to keep them liquid-free as well.
The restaurant's host is a well-spoken bilingual young man in a slim stylish suit who will charmingly explain the process of ordering meals on your own ipad set at each table. He is extremely patient and quite affable - not the usual almost wordless gruff demeanor you might encounter at many Chinese dining establishment where food is the only thing that matters.
The ipad contains prices and pictures of all that is offered, soup broths, noodle , proteins, soybean, vegetable, combos, drinks, etc. You can order a $482 bottle of wine if you like, but we saw no one imbibing alcohol the night we visited. We were drawn here because this is one of the few places that is open until 11 PM in the greater Irvine area, and we had started out too late that evening.
Thank God, because I later learned that is typical to encounter a 1 - 2 hour wait for a table. This is almost Din Tai Fung phenomenon, and Haidilao accepts reservations - unlike other popular Chinese farvorites. But many just don't bother. Our Chinese brethren appear to be much more patient for such a wait, quite unlike native-born Americans. And it creates the hype! The longer the wait, the better the food!
I tend toward the vegan side of foods, so we ordered the four broth option: Mushroom Soup Base, Tomato Soup Base, Pork Bone Borth, and Filtered Spicy Soup. The fourth is "kill me!" spicy, so you might ask them to tone it down if you are not well-practiced in fire-breathing.
I have a tendency to steer clear of hot pot houses because many only offer meat-based soup, so I was pleasantly pleased with the vegan options. Your cooking soups will run you @$15 - 20 dollars off the bat, so this inflates the price of your meal immediately. Here, it would be more economical to come with a party of 4 instead of as a couple. If you are thrifty or want no spice what-so-ever, you can order the Water Pot Soup, which costs $0.00. The multicultural wait staff (suprisingly some were not Asian and did not speak Chinese) is so pleasant they probably will not frown at you.
Another bargain is the healthy array of sauces, desserts, and appetizers (I LOVED the cold firm seaweed sprinkled with crunch sesame seeds). Many hot pot restaurants usually offer only two or three sauces, and this section is a walk-up buffet, so you can whip together your own concoctions (I invented a raw garlic, scallion, cilantro, crushed peanut and chili sauce dip which MADE my meal!). This add-on is only $1 for each patron.
We ordered a combo dish to sample a range of mushroom and vegetable offerings. My compatriots told me the meats they ordered were above average cuts. I ordered the tofu, which was anti-climactic. I'll steer toward the broader offerings in the mushroom, soybean, and vegetable sections next time (think taro, yam, radish, crown daisy, etc.).
One of the highlights of our visits was the "noodle man" who comes out and displays his rolling of the freshly made noodles they call "dancing noodles." We also ordered the purpilish taro noodles, thick and firm, which created a beautiful texture in the mouth when withdrawn from our steaming cauldrons, unlike the crystal noodles that turned into near gush after heating.
When we were done, my expert Chinese mates told me they still prefered Little Lamb for quality of cuts and - more importantly - value. However, if you want modern pizazz, a very friendly and professional multi-cultural wait staff, and unique accoutraments added to your dining experience, this is a great spot to impress a date, share a special occassion or treat visitors from out-of-town.