Only at Crazy Hot Pot could the robot waiters have felt like sort of a distraction from the main act.
After all, there was this sprawling array of food waiting, buffet style, with everything from fatty beef and fresh shrimp to fish balls and clutches of ramen noodles for us to pick out and cook up hot pot style.
But first the robot waiter was at the table with a spread of appetizers, delivering the scallion pancakes, fried peanuts and sesame balls. With that glimpse of our robot-dominated future handled, we were off to the buffet, to load up rectangular trays of raw meats, vegetables and seafood.
At its most basic, hot pot is a bubbling pot of flavorful broth that you use to quickly cook an array of ingredients yourself at the table.
In practice, hot pot becomes a choose-your-own adventure meal, and the buffet format at this one just keeps the script of different flavors unfurling. The broth becomes a wishing well of flavor, as you dunk and dip different pieces of food, adding sauces on the side for a range of flavor and texture from one morsel to the next.
Crazy indeed, and a crazy good feast ensued, with an assist from robots, some life-size, pastel colored bear statues greeting people at the door and the prospect of private karaoke rooms to holler along with your hot pot just upstairs. There’s a lot to take in here.
Restaurant owner Candi Qi opened Crazy Hot Pot earlier this year, bringing to Metairie a style that is deeply imbued in his native China and a growing trend in the U.S. It’s a centerpiece of Dian Xin 2 (the second outpost of dim sum master Dian Xin), and hot pot was the highlight of Yu Yan Kitchen in Fat City (which was endearingly homespun but proved sadly short-lived).
But there’s nothing around here quite like Crazy Hot Pot, which folds in a buffet load of variety and colorful décor that feels like eating in a cartoon that’s come to life.
It has quickly built a following, with some new devotees visiting weekly, if not more frequently. There’s already talk of developing a second location, perhaps in the city proper.
How it works
Despite the robots, verifiably human waiters really run the show, walking you through the hot pot ordering process.
You pick a broth flavor from eight choices. Spicy butter is the most popular, and there’s a mushroom broth for a vegetarian option. I like the tom yum broth for its blend of spicy and sour flavors.
The robots arrive tableside with appetizers from the kitchen. These machines look like rolling bookshelves and they emit a happy piano tune as they make their rounds, sounding a bit like an ice cream man rounding the block. Still, I’ve watched enough movies to find something unnerving about their programmed cheer; I can’t see their blockish blue eye shapes without thinking of the day technology turns against us, putting the very survival of mankind in the balance.
But then your broth arrives in its own kitchen pot, which fits into an induction heater sunk into the table before each diner. You use digital controls to regulate the temperature and very quickly the broth finds a rolling boil.
By this time, you should’ve already made a trip to the buffet. I suggest a preliminary scouting mission just to eyeball things. Eyeballs are one item I have not seen on the Crazy Hot Pot menu, but much else seems fair game.
There’s a freezer filled with rolled slices of meat, which cooks rapidly in the broth. There is a section for fresh seafood, like halved blue crabs, whole shrimp in the shell and also shrimp paste, scored rolls of squid and green and black shelled mussels.
On it goes. You can quickly assemble a variety tray with oyster mushrooms, shumai dumplings, bitter chrysanthemum greens, seaweed knotted like bow ties, spiky strands of tripe and wobbly planks of duck blood.
Tofu comes in many different types — fresh sheets and fried cubes and rolls of tofu skin which resemble broad, thin noodles when boiled. Numerous too are the “seafood balls,” dumpling shapes made from minced fish and shellfish, sometimes with fillings that liquefy to burst in fierce lava-like heat if left too long in the broth.
Back at the table, you dip these things into your bubbling cauldron a few pieces at a time, fishing them out again with slotted spoons. Each item will have its own ideal cooking time (marked on a picture sheet), though “ideal” is a loose target when it comes to hot pot, where intuition and guesswork are in play more than a timer. The fun here is in experimentation.
To that end, there’s a whole room devoted to sauces — a spread of several dozen ingredients. The idea is to combine them to make your own dipping sauce, either following a few recipes suggested on the wall or your own whim.
I’ve seen people dump these sauces into broth, but that’s a mistake. These are intended for dipping the food once you’ve cooked it.
The hot and spicy sauce, with dashes of sesame sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and herbs, is particularly good. The sauce room also gives the novel experience of portioning out soy sauce from a giant dispenser of the sort that usually pours iced tea. The fun just doesn’t stop at this restaurant.
All you can eat, but …
The restaurant charges one price: $29.99 per person at lunch or dinner for all you can eat (it’s $14.99 for kids age 4 to 12, no charge for kids younger than that). Drinks are extra. Crazy Hot Pot now serves beer, and plans to add wine in the future. Otherwise, the beverages are soft drinks, and many of these are Chinese imports, including a canned tea with a gentle sweetness and a juice box-style container filled with creamy coconut milk.
There are some rules built into the price structure. There’s a 90-minute limit on your stay. And you could incur a charge for food you take from the buffet but don’t finish.
Beyond that, though, the structure is loose and generous. Appetizers are included in the price and you can order as many as you want. These arrive (have I mentioned the robots?) in small bowls with a few pieces of each item — generally of the fried Chinese restaurant appetizer variety, like egg rolls, chicken wings and such.
I would not recommend filling up on them given the cold calculations of value and volume to come at the buffet. But the kimchi and edamame give a nice contrast, and I’m always here for fried dumplings. So roll right up with those, Mr. Robot.
Dessert is also included. This is self-serve (note: not soft serve) ice cream to scoop up yourself from big vats.
One special appetizer not included in the price is chargrilled oysters, which come heavily matted with cheese. These are $6 for a half dozen, and represent one of Crazy Hot Pot’s forays into Louisiana flavors as a bridge for newbies. The Cajun broth is another, with a distinct flavor of crab boil.
There’s also an ice chest of boiled crawfish along the buffet line. It’s not intended as an addition for your hot pot, but inevitably people will try, and I can confirm that the broth does add a little more flavor and a fresh blast of heat to the mud bug but risks badly overcooking them.
Still, when you have a bubbling pot of broth and the license of all-you-can-eat to do what you want to, investigations will continue.
3322 N. Turnbull Drive, Metairie; (504) 571-5101
Noon to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; noon to midnight, Friday to Sunday
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