A first look at The Bird Hot Pot restaurant on Gibson does not inspire confidence. The beer posters and recessed, glass block entryway suggest a strip mall dive bar, and the dining room inside, largely bereft of decoration, exudes all the charm of an airport terminal gate area.
But initial impressions turn out to be misleading. The Bird Hot Pot presents a fun introduction to the ancient Chinese art of hot pot cooking – an approach that involves plunging raw ingredients into a pot of boiling broth – that makes up for what it lacks in ambiance.
The Bird Hot Pot opened two years ago in a shopping center across from the old Lovelace Gibson hospital. A few remnants of its previous incarnation as a Mexican restaurant remain, such as a stepped divider made with mock adobe bricks. Beyond the restaurant, a barroom, dark and empty at lunchtime, extends all the way to the back wall.
After you sit, you get a menu and a marker with which to make your selections. There are a dozen appetizers, including mushrooms stuffed with spicy tuna, fried in tempura batter and called, for some reason, monkey balls ($5.50). The bites are spicy, crunchy and bursting with mushroom flavor that renders the tuna almost unnoticeable.
The hot pot is available in five soup styles, including traditional, miso and Thai curry, each offered at different spice levels. You choose from a selection of proteins and a side of steamed rice or cellophane noodles. The small size is plenty for one or two people; the large, a few dollars more, comes with a divider down the middle so you and your fellow diners can share different types of soup.
A few minutes after my party ordered, the server delivered the cooking implements – essentially burners with cans of fuel strapped to them. He then brought out the soup in woks – loaded with bok choy, cabbage and golden needle mushrooms – and fired up the burner.
Among the proteins, I highly recommend the beef ($13.50/$18.95), thinly sliced sheets of rib-eye that take only a few swirls through the broth to cook. The meat is tender and pairs well with the garlic, chili oil and soy sauce from the condiment cart.
The seafood option ($14.50/$19.95) includes calamari rings, clams, shrimp, sliced fish balls, whitefish, a stalk of fake crab meat and a scallop. Cooking times vary for these ingredients. Eventually, I dumped it all into the broth and then retrieved it, piece by piece, from underneath the shroud of cabbage that floated atop the soup. The plump, fresh scallop was especially good. I would have happily swapped out the fish balls and imitation crab meat for another one.
The heat generated from the red chili peppers in the soup is noticeable, but tolerable, at least at the medium and hot levels. Bear in mind that as the broth cooks down, the spice tends to concentrate in the contents of the soup, especially in the block of tofu at the bottom of the wok.
On this afternoon, one taciturn man conducted the whole operation with admirable efficiency. He did not give an orientation to the process, so you might want to watch a couple of YouTube videos first, as my friend did, to prepare for an interactive dining experience that offers a welcome break from the norm.