Ellicott City's Hot Pot Hero introduces diners to a Chinese tradition

Wenqi Chen wanted to introduce local diners to authentic Chinese hot pots, simmering soups diners cook at their tables with ingredients like meat, seafood and vegetables.

The process can be intimidating to first-timers. It was for us when we visited Hot Pot Hero, the Ellicott City restaurant Chen opened in January.

After we were seated, a server handed us a clipboard with a check-off menu, similar to a sushi menu. He explained the procedure, alleviating some of our awkwardness.

First, you pick a broth. Diners decide if they want to share a broth in a large pot in the center of the table or choose their own for a small pot near each place setting. A group can also order a split pot with two different broths, which is what we did. We picked the assorted mushroom pot and the spicy pot.

The mushroom broth was complex and delicious with an impressive number of fungi in the mix. The spicy broth was intense and wonderful, but be warned: It was potent enough to bring tears. There is also a “super spicy dark” version. Only brave palates should consider that one.

The next step was to pick out the remainder of our soup components from a long list of offerings. We were overwhelmed and settled on three combo platters to keep it simple: beef, seafood and vegetables.

Each item is a la carte, so it’s wise to pay attention to prices. Otherwise, you might end up with a whopping final bill. For instance, the Kobe beef is $39.95.

While we waited for our food, we joined a procession of diners at the dipping bar to create sauces for our soups. You can mix items like soy sauce, ginger, fermented bean curd and garlic in small bowls at the counter before returning to your seats.

The dining room is modern and bright with comfy dark-blue-and-red-striped booths, a long banquette with chairs and artwork depicting super heroes like Batman, Captain America and the Hulk.

There are several TVs on the walls, silently showing sports games, music videos and cooking shows. Off the main dining area are private rooms that seat at least eight.

There are an assortment of non-alcoholic beverages, including sodas, tea and juices. The restaurant is BYOB without a corkage fee, though that service needs to be fine-tuned.

Seeing our bottle of wine, our waiter set two wet wine glasses on the table. He then mangled the cork while trying to open the bottle, explaining he didn’t know how to open one. A twist-off cap might be the way to go here.

We ordered a scallion pancake to nibble on while the soup cooked. The thin, savory pastry was cut into quarters but tasted bland, with only a hint of scallion in the mix.

Skewers are also available, from lamb to grilled sweet corn. We’ll try those next time.

Our other food was gorgeous when it arrived. Our waiter turned on the heat at our table to bring the broths to a boil. He advised us to add the vegetables first, which were mostly crisp greens, including bok choy and napa cabbage.

The beef platter was huge, with thin slices of meat like brisket and Angus chuck. The seafood, set on a mound of ice, was impressive and included giant shrimp with heads, squid, oysters on the half shell, scallops and pink crab sticks.

It was fun to prepare the communal meal. We learned that the beef cooks quickly, and we may have let the shrimp stay in too long. But we enjoyed it all.

When our broths became low, our waiter refilled the pots. At some point, we realized we were full. If you order too much food, you can always take home leftovers.

The restaurant doesn’t offer dessert, and we didn’t miss it.

If you’re looking for an interactive, delicious meal, Hot Pot Hero is for you. We’ll go back feeling more confident. You will, too.

At a Glance

Hot Pot Hero

10045 Baltimore National Pike, Suite A4, Ellicott City

443-652-5998, thehotpothero.com

The vibe: The storefront restaurant in a strip shopping center is lively and novel, as diners create their own Chinese hot pots at the table.

You’ll fit in wearing: Casual attire

Don’t miss: The seafood combo platter

Best for kids: There is no children’s menu, but the soups are easy to share with little ones.

Reservations: Accepts reservations for six or more.

Price range: Broths, $3.95-$4.95 a person; soup ingredients, 50 cents-$39.95; skewers, $2-$26; Chinese pastries (pancakes), $5-$6.

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