Friday, March 24, 2017

A Night of Firsts at Hai Di Lao

Hai Di Lao Fusion Shabu
1065 Brea Mall 1031A
Brea, CA 92821

When restaurant invites roll around, it makes me feel very popular all of a sudden. My friends suddenly return my phone calls, they might even get me a doughnut at work without me even asking, and I hear from people I only usually see in Facebook posts. Okay, maybe this is a little over-exaggerated, but when I get a restaurant invite, it makes me feel like I've got a golden ticket, and get to share the experience.

Most of the time I carefully pick someone that I know will enjoy the restaurant or someone that I haven't seen in awhile. I had it all lined up to take my friend Ryan, but surprise, surprise, he made another lame excuse to cancel, so I scrambled to find someone on short notice. Enter my good friend Danny. He seemed up for it, and since we both had never had shabu or hot pot before, both of us did not really have any indication of what to expect from our visit to the new Hai Di Lao at the Brea Mall.

Hai Di Lao is not new to the restaurant game. Started in China in 1994, they now have over 200 locations and opened their first US spot in Arcadia in  2013. That location is also in a mall, the Arcadia Westfield Mall. Judging from the pictures I have seen on Yelp, the Arcadia venue is bigger, with a bigger decor package, and a dancing noodle guy. We were told that this Brea spot may get a dancing noodle guy, but they are still trying to work out the logistics of it in this smaller space.

Danny and I arrived at this new Hai Di Lao last Wednesday at 7 pm. If you are familiar with the Brea Mall, this restaurant is located right across the way from Red Robin, and right next to the entrance to the Macy's Men's Store. The are in soft opening mode until this Saturday, March 25th, when they will hold their Grand Opening Celebration, and offer guests buy one entree, get one entree free all day on Saturday. For being in soft opening status, Hai Di Lao was one popular spot to be at on this rather slow Wednesday night at the mall. Every table was occupied and most of the bar seating was taken up as well during our stay.

Our waiter Kareem and the rest of the staff did a great job of explaining the menu and process of eating at Hai Di Lao to novices Danny and I. Basically, this is one part shabu restaurant and one part hot pot. It's a three-step ordering process. You pick the style of broth you want. they have different flavors and heat levels for you to choose from. Then you pick the size and the proteins that you desire from a list of nine offered. The last step is to pick your dipping sauce, some of which are add-ons of 99 cents and were created by Michelin Star Chef Joachim Splichal. Let's take a look at what came out for us.

Before we had the chance to order, Kareem had brought out some Japanese Mashed Potato and some Kimchee. He also brought this to other tables as well. I'm not sure what made the potato dish Japanese, as it tasted just like a more dense and cold mashed potato. Different, but good. I actually liked the kimchee better, as it had a good flavor to it, and tasted freshly made. Plus I was pretty hungry after driving from South county on an empty stomach.

Since both Danny and I were pretty hungry, and because Kareem had suggested it, we ordered two appetizers to start but had differing opinions on which one we liked better. Danny was more partial to the Gyoza ($4.99). I felt these needed to be filled with a little more meat, but Danny scarfed these down rather quickly and enjoyed dipping them in the soy sauce provided. Since he was preoccupied with the gyoza, it freed me up to take down a good amount of the Potato Shrimp ($6.99. These good sized shrimp were wrapped around stringed potatoes and then deep fried. Kind of like a shrimp wrapped around a hash brown, which I never would have thought would work, but it totally did. I used the ketchup that was provided, which gave this kind of a breakfast tinge to it. I'm getting these again for sure on my next visit to Hai Di Lao.

When we were about half way done with our appetizers, Kareem brought out our pots of broth to get them heated up on the table top burners. Mine was the lighter colored of the two, the Pork Bone Kimchi, which was touted on the menu as being the second most spicy of all the broths. Danny went with the House Spicy broth, which was listed as the mildest of the spicy broths offered. They also offer some that are not spicy at all.

As our broths were approaching boiling temperature, we were brought out this good looking Vegetable Plate, which comes with every entree. Danny, who works with produce on a daily basis was pretty impressed with the quality of the veggies here. He said there were not dark spots on anything, they were very fresh, and some of the best produce he has seen in a long time. This plate included tofu, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, napa, baby bok choy, and green onions. I agree with Danny's assessment of these vegetables, but wish that there was a little more broccoli and carrots involved here. I gingerly dropped all of my veggies in the boiling broth at the same time so they could soak up all of the flavors from the spicy broth.

Right on the heels of our veggies simmering away in the broth, the proteins that we ordered made their appearance at our table. I got the Large 6 Ounce Kurobuta All Natural Pork ($19.99), while Danny had the Large 6 Ounce USDA Prime Ribeye ($25.99). Then as a special treat, we added on to our order, the Regular 4 Ounce Wagyu Beef ($18.99). Our first few tries of cooking our curled meats in the broth were a little bit of trial and error, but we finally got the hang of it. The thinly sliced meats really cooked quickly. All three of the meats we chose were great, but the Wagyu was very special and well worth the extra money to experience it. Unbelievably tender.

After the meat was done cooking, you could choose to dip it into one of the aforementioned sauces, which of course I had to try them all. I was very partial to the Roasted Garlic Sauce, Peanut Sauce, and the Spicy Roasted Red Onion Sauce. I really liked the uniqueness of each of these, and it made my meal all the more memorable having different sauces to dip my meat into. Danny was more traditional, just using the Sudachi Ponzu sauce as his chief dipping vehicle. Such a creature of habit.

Since it was a little chaotic cooking our own food and getting the timing down, I did not take pictures of the finished product, but just know that we were completely satisfied with our meals, and even pretty big eaters, like ourselves left here comfortably full. Both Danny and I were a little shocked that we could get so full from a plate of veggies, six ounces of meat, and some dipping sauces, but we have to admit that to be the case.

Of course, we are never too full to ignore dessert, and this would be the first time either of us had tried Mochi Ice Cream ($6.99). I think we would describe this as ice cream wrapped in a gummi flavored type casing. This came with three flavors, mango, raspberry, and vanilla. I liked the vanilla one the best, but all were pretty solid.

I'd say that Hai Di Lao was a great introduction to this style of restaurant for both Danny and I. Going in we really did not know what to expect, and on the way home we eagerly made plans to come back very soon with our wives. I was most impressed with the cleanliness of the restaurant and the freshness of every item we had here. As the night went on, it did not really feel like we were eating in a mall, as the passing shoppers faded deep into the background, as the food really became front and center during our stay. I'm so happy that I could share this experience with my friend Danny, as we both experienced our maiden voyage into shabu and hot pot, and it will definitely not be our last.

For more information about Hai Di Lao, head to their website here:

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