There is something magical about a cauldron of bubbling broth when it's brought to the table.
Heads turn in the dining room to gawk. Crowds of friends huddle around its aromatic warmth. Platters of pristine raw ingredients arrive beside the flame, piled majestically high like offerings to the hot pot gods. And the pace of dinner slows to a leisurely simmer, proceeding only as fast as each thin-sliced sheet of meat, bouncy fish ball, or crunchy fan of enoki mushrooms can be carefully poached, one by one, with the lingering spice of good conversation.
Of course, hot pots can be a broth-sloppy affair. I recommend wearing plaid. It's also a time commitment for such a casual meal - figure a couple of hours - which may explain why it's been slow to boil in the United States, even as Asian fondue became all the restaurant rage in Taiwan and China.
The hot pot's call, however, is finally bubbling up in Philly. At Jane G's, the Sichuan specialist off Rittenhouse Square, you can taste a serious high-end version for $35 a person, where platters of lobster balls, duck's blood pudding, marbled beef, and all manner of offal (tripe, kidney, intestine) dunked in broths perfumed with tongue-numbing fagara peppers and tiny dates are then dipped in a garlicky sauce rich with sesame paste and "SHA cha" (dried shrimp and chilies).
Philly's hot pot epicenter, though, is Chinatown, where the dish's sudden ubiquity (at Happy Noodle Bar, Red Kings, and Sakura-Mandarin, where the ordinarily DIY dish is composed in the kitchen) is further proof of the rising influence of young new immigrants from the spicier provinces beyond south China, which for more than a century ruled the neighborhood's menus. (The hot pots are completely different from the handled clay crocks of bubbling, thick Cantonese sauce popularized as "hot pots" years ago by Lee How Fook and Shiao Lan Kung.)
The recent arrival of Dennis and Katherine Tuan's Simply Shabu, a 40-seat Cherry Street BYO dedicated completely to hot pottery, adds yet another intriguing wrinkle. And yes, the Top 40 soundtrack bounding through the stylish space with hits from John Legend and Bruno Mars is a big clue why. So is the fact that this sleek green room, with its pallet-wood walls, exposed air ducts, neat U-shaped rear counter for solo diners, and Benetton-diverse international staff, feels nothing like any Chinatown space to date (except, maybe, for the stylish new Dim Sum Garden.)
Which is exactly the point. Not only is Chinatown now cool again for international students, it's suddenly a draw for first-generation Americans, like the Tuans, hoping to tap trendy Asian youth culture with an entrepreneurial spirit. And the collegiate "bubble tea generation," some in varsity jackets and spiked-up hair, a few young women with mothers in tow, have come to Simply Shabu in droves.
Dennis, 26, the West Windsor, N.J.-raised son of Taiwanese parents, dove into hot pot culture during several months working at an Internet start-up in Taiwan. Unfulfilled by his corporate job, and inspired by a similar concept in Boston (Shabu Zen,) he jumped on a hunch to fill the Philly niche with his wife, an occupational therapist, and parents, who helped him build it.
The result, tucked down one of Chinatown's quieter streets ("We're still saving up for a sign!" said our server, Tiffany) is a hybrid concept cast to bridge both American and Asian audiences.
You won't find the organ meats that traditional Chinese crowds covet - not yet, at least, as Tuan focuses first on basics to make sure fundamentals are sound. And they are on many fronts.
The broths, two of which are offered in each divided pot, are made to family recipes, the "chicken" broth steeped for hours with chicken legs and pork bones, plus ginger and scallions. The spicy broth deliberately lacks the crimson slick of chili oil that often covers Sichuan ma la hot pots, but is still flavorful from a house chile paste perfumed with cardamom pods, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, bean paste, and rock sugar to round the flavor. (Vegetarian broth is available, too.)
The Chinese woman beside us said the meat portions seemed skimpy compared to her nearby favorites. And no doubt the heap of shaved meat at Happy Noodle Bar dwarfed the eight perfectly rolled curls of sliced beef at Simply Shabu. But there's a major quality difference: the beef at Happy Noodle was so shabby that it instantly shriveled into wads of yellow fat, while Shabu's nicely marbled USDA choice rib eye (Pennsylvania-raised like all of Shabu's meats, and not unlike what goes into a good cheesesteak) remained beefy and superbly tender.
Dunk it into a custom-made dip from the DIY "sauce bar" on the side the room, and your party's good to boil-and-go. They offer two suggested recipes (a "sweet" with bonito fish sauce and daikon and a "spicy" with sesame, soy, and pickled peppers), but my guest Kevin's signature brew (sesame oil, soy, black vinegar, chili oil, garlic, and scallion) was the winner.
The quality of proteins here, though, was consistent, from the locally raised leg of lamb, which was very tender, to the big sweet sea scallops and plump shell-on shrimp, the briny littlenecks, which flavor the broth when they open, and the delicate slices of wild cod and salmon.
If they're overcooked, you have only yourself to blame. The meats and chicken, for example, take only half a minute before turning rubbery. But it can become a somewhat complicated ballet of dueling chopsticks and syncopated simmer times as diners work through the accompanying cornucopias of vegetables (corn, oyster mushrooms, taro, squash, Taiwanese cabbage) and other free add-ins (noodles, fish balls, and an egg) that make the combo plates a stellar value, ranging from $13 to $17.
A side of prefrozen Dungeness crab wasn't quite meaty enough, at $8, to be worth the splurge. But do go for a few of the other worthy à la carte additions - wood-ear mushrooms, crunchy-stemmed watercress, and fish tofu, a flavorful, marshmallow-textured revelation to my bean curd-phobic guest.
The broth, sauces, and toppings may not yet ultimately be quite as complex as Jane G's "SHA cha"-tastic hot pots. But for Simply Shabu's accessible DIY style and value, with total bills averaging $25 a person, date night in Chinatown now offers more bubbling-hot interactive fun than ever.