East of East Dining Series: Hot Pot at Happy Veal
Happy Veal Hot Pot
1333 South Park St, Halifax
When I lived in Calgary I was introduced to Chinese hot pot, and this, along with phở and dim sum, would become regular events for me. There used to be a hot pot buffet at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre Restaurant, and I would walk along the wondrous buffet tables, familiarizing myself with the bounty of new-to-me foods: thinly sliced lamb, cubes of pork blood, baby octopus, bean curd sheets, various greens and so many types of mushrooms and meat balls. We would order Tsingtao beer by the 6-pack, and go round-for-round, scooping treasures out of the bubbling broth.
I’ve been back in Halifax for 7 years now, and I haven’t gone out for hot pot this whole time! Despite there being several dedicated shops. it hasn’t quite caught on in the same way as sushi and Korean BBQ. This needs to change! It’s time to say YES to pot!
I decided to round up a group of 6 curious diners to descend upon Happy Veal Hot Pot. I had forgotten how intimidating hot pot can be for first-timers, and I was surprised by how apprehensive they were. I found myself in the role of “fearless leader” – a role for which I was not quite prepared!
It’s really not so difficult, though, if you’re ever had fondue. You just choose your broth, fillings and sauces and then it’s time to treasure hunt!
Choose Your Broth:
At Happy Veal you can choose 1 broth and 2 meats for $26. We went for the recommended Half & Half (Original & Spicy) broths. The divided pot of broth was placed on the table grill, and before we could say “double double toil and trouble”… our broths were a’bubbling.
Actuallyyyy… water takes time to boil, and we definitely wanted a nice hot broth before entrusting it with our food. This was the calm before the storm….
Choose Your Sauce:
One of my favourite parts about hot pot is the dipping sauce. Ideally, there would be a sauce station where customers can mix and match their own customized sauce from a plethora of options. At Happy Veal you have to order them for $2 a pop. We tried the recommended sesame sauce and the Chuanqi Sauce (which is a brand of sauce specifically for hot pot). One order of each sauce was more than enough for our table.
I was a fan of both sauces, aggressively dipping my food into an increasingly blurry Ying Yang, while others preferred their food sans sauce. Whatevs.
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Choose Your Adventure. Choose Life:
Happy Veal provides you with an ordering sheet, to indicate how many orders of each item you would like. As I said, our broth came with two meat options, so we decided on beef slices and lamb shoulder slices. It looked like a lot of food when it arrived at the table but hot broth, in this case, causes some shrinkage. I would order extra next time – all the meats!
Everything else we chose was at an extra cost: handmade mashed shrimp ($10), mix of seafood balls ($7), nappa cabbage ($3.50), romain hearts ($2.50), tong ho (chrysanthemum leaves) ($5), shitaake mushroom ($3.50), and deep fried bean curd sheet ($3.50).
The food arrived all at once, making for a crowded table but also a great aerial photo!
Wait – How Do I Do This?
Hot pot can be a free for all if you want it to be, and I’ve seen ya’ll eating AYCE sushi so I know you ain’t got no law ‘n order.
A hot pot session can similarly lack rhyme and reason, with random foods plopping haphazardly into the broth to be fished out (“Surprise! What’s this?!”) with mesh scoops. But there is a recommended cooking order:
Monica Chen writes on TutorMing (a Mandarin language learning site):
“Meat balls, tofu, mushrooms, and vegetables go in first to flavor the soup. After that comes the meat — it may be a good idea to separate the slices to speed up their cooking time. Starches like potatoes should be put in later during the meal, since it will change the broth into a thicker complexion. Seafood goes in last to prevent the soup from getting too fishy in the beginning of your meal. And finally, let’s not forget to put some in noodles near the end of the meal to soak up all the broth’s delicious goodness.”
Did we follow this to a T? Hell no!
But at the end of the day, we enjoyed ourselves and we didn’t cross-contaminate our utensils – and that’s what really matters, amirite?
A Few of Our Favourite Things:
Fish balls and tofu and all kinds of mushrooms,
Sliced meat and shrimp paste, chrysanthemum nom noms,
Sesame dipping sauce, cabbage, squid rings,
– these are a few of my favourite things!…
Okay, so if we were going to do this again we would definitely double down on the meats and meat balls. I would get the fish balls again, for sure, but also some pork and beef balls. I would get two orders of sliced meats again, but maybe tack on some “luncheon meat” or tripe for fun.
The hand-made mashed shrimp was a paste that we had to scoop into the broth with a metal spoon, and it would solidify and float to the top as it cooked. Quite tasty, but definitely the “fishiest” thing we ordered so I’m glad we added it towards the end.
The tong ho (chrysanthemum greens) was a nice surprise, as it had all the pleasing aspects of a saturated, wilted green while being robust enough to hold its own. A crowd favourite!
After the group had become more comfortable with the process, they decided to order something more adventurous, and beef aorta was the consensus. Sure, why not? I think it’s always good to choose one food that you’ve never had before, even if it sounds unusual or “icky” from your cultural standpoint. For this reason, the beef aorta makes my list of favourite things. It had a chewy texture like squid, but with more of a crunch and less flavour. I think I would have enjoyed it more if it was interspersed with the other foods, and not a last minute mono-addition. It wasn’t…. hearty enough. Heh.
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What We Learned:
This was my first time going to an a la carte hot pot restaurant, so I wasn’t sure about portions or the expected cost per person. It’ll take a few trips to really become a pro, knowing exactly which foods I like and in what quantity. Here are a few things I learned:
Group Size: It’s good to go with a group, because hot pot is social by nature. However, we had a group of 6 and this made our table quite crowded and awkward. There is also only so much food that will fit into the pot at one time, and 6 sets of chopsticks can deplete it pretty quickly. I think a group of 3-4 would be ideal.
I mean, we’d often go in group of 10+ in Calgary but that restaurant had huge tables that could accommodate multiple pots, and since it was buffet-style we didn’t need as much table space.
Portions: It looked like a lot of food, but this actually wasn’t enough to fill us up. We had avoided carb-laden items for various reasons, and ordered too many greens (which are tasty but not filling). I would double down on the meat and seafood next time, and throw in some noodles, dumplings, rice cakes. quail eggs and tofu.
The cost per person was roughly $15/each (not including drinks). I would gladly pay $25-$30 to get a greater quantity and variety of food.
Then again – when I ask my Chinese friends where to go for hot pot in Halifax, they say: “Why pay that much for hot pot when I can make it at home?”
I’m on my way over… I’ll bring the Tsingtao!
See More: East of East Dining Series