The closure of the Bird Hot Pot on Gibson in 2020 left a void in the Albuquerque dining scene. Where was one to go to partake in the uniquely interactive and communal dining experience of Chinese hot pot?
That question was answered recently with the arrival of Zu Hot Pot on Juan Tabo NE.
Zu Hot Pot opened last fall in the former home of An Hy Quan, the terrific vegetarian restaurant that had been a favorite destination for local diners before changing ownership in 2020. The building, a freestanding stucco block set in front of a rather sad-looking strip mall on the west side of Juan Tabo, remains much the same.
Hot pot cooking traces its roots back a thousand years to Mongolia, where horseman reputedly used their helmets as pots for cooking meat in boiling broth. The practice spread to China and developed several regional variations over the ensuing centuries.
Like Korean barbecue, hot pot can be daunting for the uninitiated, and even if you’ve had it before, a little brush-up is welcome. Fortunately, Zu Hot Pot’s owner Felics Chen is there to guide diners through the process.
Chen was an active presence in the dining room when my wife and I arrived recently for an early dinner. We were seated along the restaurant’s east side that looks out at the passing traffic on Juan Tabo.
As Chen patiently explained to us, the menu consists of four broths ($6.95): Chinese Herb, Korean Kimchi, Thai Style Curry and Taiwanese Shacha, a variation based on a popular savory condiment with a slightly fishy taste. You can get the broths at three different heat levels. We ordered the Chinese Herb at the mild level and the Thai Curry at medium heat.
Protein choices include pork, chicken, beef, lamb and seafood. There is an extensive list of vegetables, some more familiar than others. Upon Chen’s recommendation, we ordered the Mixed Vegetables ($6.95), which includes cabbage, Chinese broccoli, taro root and bok choy.
After ordering, we journeyed to the immaculately clean condiments bar to mix up some sauces from the oils, thick, grainy pastes and fresh herbs on display. A sheet of paper taped to the wall provides a few recipes such as the classic combination of peanut sauce, soy sauce, vinegar and garlic.
Shortly thereafter, Chen set down a pot of broth with a metal divider in the middle to keep the two versions separated. She then turned on the electric stove and the broth came to a boil in a few minutes.
The Chinese Herb broth was clear, the Thai Curry fiery orange. Chen told us the broth is made by stewing bones for roughly eight to nine hours. Both broths were pretty mild in flavor. The heat of the curry version at medium spice level was noticeable but tolerable.
No sooner had we sampled the broth then Chen delivered a plate heaped with fresh veggies that included a mix of starches, leafy greens and mushrooms. She dumped them in the broth, dividing them between the two halves of the pot. The veggies brought an intriguing mix of textures. The cabbage stayed crunchy while the taro root softened and soaked up the flavors of the broth.
Plates of thin-sliced beef (4 ounces for $6.95) and shrimp (six for $5.95) followed. By then, the too-small dimensions of the table had become apparent.
The beef cooks in about 10 seconds; much longer than that and it becomes rubbery. We fished it out the broth with chopsticks and gave it a quick dip in the sauce before eating. Tender and chewy, it paired well with a mix of soy, chili oil and vinegar. The shrimp was ready in a couple of minutes and matched nicely with the peanut sauce.
A side of Clear Noodles ($1.95) cooked to al dente in a few minutes; any longer and they started to turn mushy.
Along with the hot pot, the menu offers a handful of mostly familiar appetizers like pot stickers and egg rolls. An order of Chicken Wings ($7.95) consisted of four wings and a couple of drumsticks encased in a tasty, crisp breading. The meat was piping hot and moist, but because of the cooking time, it was delivered after the soup and fixings.
Zu Hot Pot is accommodating for gluten-free diners. All the broths and several of the appetizers are gluten-free. Unfortunately, there’s no tamari offered at the condiments bar.
Service was brisk and Chen checked on us several times throughout the meal. There’s a 3.5% fee tacked on to the bill for credit cards.
After a brief absence, Chinese hot pot is back in Albuquerque. Felics Chen’s presence at Zu Hot Pot ensures a trouble-free introduction to the experience.