LANDEN, Ohio -- There's a new restaurant in town that's bubbling over with a very enthusiastic fan base. Tucked away in the Kings Mall retail center, Noodle & Hot Pot quietly opened on Oct. 31 at 4750 Fields Ertel Road.
The restaurant specializes in authentic hot pot dining and is already getting enormous attention from area diners -- much to the surprise of owners Yuke Qiu and Jennifer Niu.
"The first day we opened, we were packed … and there were still 20 tables (of customers) waiting outside," Qiu said.
Hot pot cuisine is distantly similar to fondue-dining but is much more elaborate. Diners progressively cook their food in boiling soup at the center of the table. This style of dining is based on a shared pot of soup, an assortment of raw ingredients and ideally a full table of eaters to share in the copious amounts of food. The soup is the backbone of this cuisine, which is why the owners are sparing no expense in creating just the right flavors.
"We have a professional chef in my hometown in China who hand-makes the soup base. Then we pack it and ship it here," Qiu said. "We're trying to keep everything traditional and authentic."
The restaurant offers seven different kinds of soups: "nine boxes spicy," "spicy," bone, wild mushroom, tomato, tom yam and curry. The first two soups are off-the-charts spicy; in fact, the "nine boxes spicy" incorporates beef fat -- according to Qiu, it further ramps up the heat as well as flavor. The tom yam and curry soups are medium-spicy while the tomato and wild mushroom soups are benign.
The soup base preparation gets complex, some using 25 or more ingredients, many of which are best sourced "locally" in China. Some of the ingredients include Chinese cardamom (白寇 bái kòu), Sichuan pepper (花椒huā jiāo) and fermented bean curd (豆腐乳dòu fu rǔ).
The kitchen crew at the restaurant then assembles the soup bases from China and prepares the other fresh ingredients to create an authentic hot pot experience.
First, diners choose their soup, then the ingredients -- a la carte -- to go in the soup. There are more than 80 choices ranging from meat to seafood to mushrooms and vegetables. The "one meter-long lamb" stands out, with thin slices of organic lamb beautifully presented on a one-meter-long wooden paddle. You also can get Angus beef the same way.
Other unique ingredients include shrimp or cuttlefish paste served on hollowed-out bamboo segments, crispy tofu skin and handmade potato pasta sheets -- they are prepared in Qiu's hometown, Chongqing, and then shipped here. All ingredients are brought to the table raw.
There's also a self-serve sauce table with roughly 10 sauces, with choices such as sesame peanut sauce, mushroom sauce and leek flower sauce.
If you want to try more than one soup, you have the option of getting the "half and half" pot, which contains two. The soups are replenished tableside at no extra charge.
If you're in a hurry or prefer to try something different, you can get rice and noodle dishes such as Sichuan-style braised pork, fried rice and Chongqing noodles.
"We serve noodles and rice mainly for lunch, although some people come in for hot pot anyway," Niu said.
A few items from the drink and snack menu are worth noting: sweet rice ball soup with rice wine, ice jelly and plum juice. The plum juice is lightly sweet and readily douses the fiery hot soups.
Currently, the restaurant serves only non-alcoholic beverages, but its liquor license is pending. Niu and Qiu said they plan to offer kaoliang liquor (高粱酒), a type of strong Chinese distilled liquor made from fermented sorghum. While they don't plan to offer cocktails, they plan to serve Tsingtao beer from China and a mix of other beers, including local craft brews.
"It's common to eat spicy food and drink beer where I'm from," said Qiu.
The idea of opening a hot pot restaurant came to Qiu last year when she was pregnant and craving the food: "I wanted to eat hot pot but couldn't find it here," she said.
Around that time, she reconnected with her friend, Jennifer Niu -- a Shangdong native who was also looking to start a restaurant. Although the two come from different regions in China -- Niu from the north and Qiu from the south -- they were able to develop a menu that reflects both regional cuisines.
The first-time restaurateurs readily acknowledge they're still learning to operate their restaurant. In spite of the steep learning curve, they are determined to bring their cuisine to the area and hope customers will give them a chance.
"We want them to come try even though we're not that good yet," Qiu said. "We feel very happy when our customers tell us they like our food."
Noodle & Hot Pot
Address: 4750 Fields Ertel Road, Landen, OH 45249
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Monday.
Information: 513-849-8898; https://hotpotohio.com/
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Connect with her on https://www.graceyek.com/ .