Stepping into Le Pot Chinese Hotpot on a weekday afternoon, modern Chinese music plays from a sound system in the ceiling.
Behind the register, traditional Chinese masks stare out from the wall. The air is rich, spicy and steamy with the unmistakable fragrance of hot pot—a popular Chinese dish that has made its way to Minnesota.
Co-owner Brandon Su, 28, said he decided to open the restaurant, located in Dinkytown at the University of Minnesota, after missing the traditional food from his home in China. Su grew up near Beijing and moved to the United States to attend college, he said.
“I tried almost all the Chinese restaurants in Minnesota, and the food was not exactly how I thought it should be,” Su said. “It was either too sweet or too sour.”
The restaurant Su opened in spring 2017 focuses on hot pot, a traditional dish in China that has started to grow in popularity in the Twin Cities. Hot pot chain Tasty Pot also opened down the street in Dinkytown this year.
At its essence, hot pot is quite literally a pot of hot broth kept simmering at the table. In China, families sit together, cook meat, vegetables and other food in the pot, and then eat the food together. The warming dish is often eaten in cold weather.
“Minnesota is a really, really great place for hot pot—it’s cold, the winter is long and the people enjoy sitting down and having great food with their friends,” Su said.
At Le Pot, customers order a small pot of broth and add flavorings, such as mushroom sauce, seafood sauce and soy sauce. The restaurant also serves combo plates and separate orders of meats, vegetables, noodles and more to cook in the soup. Some special traditional ingredients include lotus root, kelp seaweed and dried bean stick. Customers control the temperature of the pot by themselves.
In Chinese homes and restaurants, families traditionally share a single large pot of broth. But Su said he and his partners decided to offer individual small pots instead to cater to American preferences.
“We had a serious conversation about whether to offer big communal pots or small individual pots,” he said. “Actually having the big pot would be more advantageous to the restaurant because we could do BBQ, too. But if we want to deliver the food and culture to America, our main focus should [be] on the American customers, to let them feel comfortable eating in the restaurant.”
Hot pot was started by the Chinese working poor centuries ago. Strong flavors and leftovers (such as chicken or pig organs) were put in a hot pot of water to cook the food. The delicious pot would also help keep the working poor warm during cold winters.
In addition to introducing customers to traditional Chinese food, Su wants to spread the Chinese culture in other ways, he said, including through the decoration of the restaurant, the outfits the servers and hosts wear, and the celebration of special Chinese holidays.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, Su planned to change the house dessert to mooncake, special treats with different fillings and patterns symbolizing family unity, he said. During the Spring Festival, which is the Chinese New Year, Su plans to hand customers red envelopes with meaningful things in them for good luck. And during the summer solstice and winter solstice, he will offer customers special dumplings or filled red bean tangyuan.
“I want to deliver the true, exact Chinese flavor to America,” Su said, “so that’s why I chose hot pot, because it’s easily accessible.”