Chinese hot pots are steaming a trail across central Ohio.

Chinese hot pots are steaming a trail across central Ohio.

At least three restaurants fully dedicating their menus to hot pots – Secret Vessel Hot Pot, Peking Hot Pot and Mr. Pot – have popped up in Columbus and are attracting more and more Americans.

On a recent hot and muggy night, Jen Bodine sat down to a steamy bowl of broth at Secret Vessel, 2620 N. High St. in the University District.

"I have an addiction," Bodine said. "It's always tasty."

"There aren't a lot of places you go and cook your food in a steaming bowl of broth," said Mike Palatas, who regularly joins Bodine at Secret Vessel.

Within the concept, restaurants serve several varieties of boiling homemade stock, which is used to cook an assortment of meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles.

The combinations, depending on the restaurant, seem endless.

For the uninitiated, the choices might seem intimidating.

They include thinly sliced steak, tofu, shrimp, fish, mushrooms, cabbage, corn, raw meatballs and different styles of noodles.

The restaurants also have numerous dipping sauces – oyster sauce, sesame sauce and vinegar, to name a few – that can be mixed and seasoned with raw garlic, cilantro and green onion.

The stock is heated by a special ceramic device in the table, which is turned on when the bowl is placed on it. The various ingredients are lowered in via chopsticks (or forks).

In China, the hot pot is enjoyed by all, regardless of socioeconomic status.

It is the centerpiece of the dining experience overseas, and now in America, where Asians socialize and share a meal.

Americans see the experience somewhat differently, said Jialiang "Jay" Yue, who owns Secret Vessel with Yesheng Hu.

"American customers come in for an adventure," Yue said.

The menu comes with instructions: thinly sliced meats take little time to cook, 30 seconds or so, while raw meatballs take a few minutes, Yue said. The more that's cooked in the stock, the more flavorful it becomes, Liu said. The longer a spicy broth cooks and condenses, the hotter the liquid becomes.

There are a few no-nos with hot pots: The broth is not to be eaten as soup and dipping sauces are never added to the stock.

The party isn't necessarily cheap. Many individual orders can tick up to $20 per person or more, depending on the order.

Mr. Pot, 1178 Kenny Centre Mall on the Northwest Side, serves a buffet with endless ingredients for $26.99 per person.

Tank Ho, who works at the restaurant, said Asian customers – especially college students – often dine for three hours at a time.

"They can stay until they're full," Ho said.

Yue said price isn't necessarily an obstacle.

"I would say the Chinese people come in and order a lot," he said. "It's really hard to get a hot pot in America."

There is some variety at a few restaurants.

Mr. Pot, for example, will begin to add spicy "dry pots" in a month or so. Those dishes will be stir-fried in the kitchen and customers can finish them at the table.

Other local restaurants serve a type of hot pot, a mock pot, if you will, that requires no cooking.

At Jiu Thai, 787 Bethel Road on the Northwest Side, hot-pot-style bowls come with the ingredients already in the heated broth, so no dipping is necessary.

General Tso's, just down the street from Jiu Thai at 5227 Godown Road, serves two styles of shabu-shabu (the Japanese phrase for hot pot), which comes with pre-selected items in vessels heated by Sterno. Owner Fur Tang said it's a way to keep the cost down to $18 per couple.

He sees it as more of a cold-weather dish.

"In the wintertime, we sell 10 to 15 (bowls) a day," Tang said.

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Cinnamon Indian Grill has replaced Curry & Dosa at 1140 Kenny Centre Mall.

The menu, using halal products, per Islamic dietary restrictions, serves both vegetarian and meat dishes. The restaurant offers a daily lunch buffet and a la carte menu for dinner.

A menu highlight: several styles of chaat, or Indian snacks, such as ragda potato patties topped with a green-pea gravy, two chutneys, onion and served with chole, a chickpea curry.

One dish uncommon in local Indian restaurants: braised lamb shanks, cooked with garlic, carrot, onion and other seasonings.

Customers also will find whole hilsa fish curry, a Bengali specialty.

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary