Like its sister restaurants SHU in West Hartford and Fairfield, Chef Xinyu Huang HAN is a study in authentic Chinese cuisine, this time focusing on Huo Guo—hot pot—a popular eating experience throughout China.
For the uninitiated—as I was before visiting HAN—hot pot is a method of table-side cooking best described as Chinese-style “fondue” in which meats, vegetables, seafood and even eggs are poached in well-flavored broths before eating. Unlike fondue, which simply coats bread or fruit in cheese or chocolate respectively, diners actually cook their food in the hot pot.
An ancient cuisine of Northern China, hot pot was not commonly eaten throughout the rest of the country until the Tang Dynasty. Historically, clay or iron pots nestled over coal fires held rich broth into which diners collectively cooked various foods and ate communally. Today, at restaurants like Han special tables are constructed with hollows to nestle pots over a custom-built burner.
At HAN wait staff is abundantly knowledgeable about ingredient cooking times and are at the ready with suggestions for broth flavors and complementary ingredients. When you receive your hot pot you get a crash course in how long each item takes to cook and best methods for the most delicious outcomes. They even have a handy chart of cooking times per ingredient that takes the guesswork out of the process.
While the experience and fun of cooking your own food at the table is a big draw for hot pot restaurants, it’s the quality and diversity of Han’s ingredients that really shines.
As in his other establishments, Chef Huang has elegantly married Szechuan authenticity and American sensibility in a way that allows traditional Chinese patrons and American diners to equally enjoy the offerings.
At Han, Hot Pot is served in the most traditional family style as a nine-section hot pot with each section at different temperatures to cook different ingredients but they also offer a mini hot pot, or a split mini hotpot that offers two types of base broth in one pot. There is also a mini hot pot with four chambers for various soups.
Most of the soups, like Chengdu Hot and Spicy Soup and Wild Pepper Pickled Vegetable Soup feature traditional Szechuan styling, with plenty of chilies and flavorings specific to the region, however there are several broths like Mushroom Clear Soup and Chinese Herbal Daily Soup that are quite mild in flavor and suitable for most anyone. Any broth can be prepared with a base of chicken, beef, or vegetarian stock.
The menu of potential ingredients to go in your hotpot reads like an encyclopedia and includes simple items like chicken, bok choi, and corn on the cob all the way to more traditional items unusual for American diners like Chinese Sausage, Lotus Root, and tripe. In addition to an item list there are photos of each ingredient that can help guide your selections.
We tried a split hot pot with Chengdu Hot and Spicy Soup and Mushroom Clear Soup and a mini hotpot with Tom Yum Kung Soup, a Thai soup base with which many diners will find familiar. Among our food choices were lotus roots, bok choi and a vegetable platter that included corn, sweet and white potato, Napa cabbage and enoki, shitake, wood ear mushrooms. For proteins we chose thinly sliced beef, Chinese sausage, tofu, shrimp, flounder, and fish balls. There was a raw egg which, when cracked carefully, poached to perfection in the spicy broth.
Cooking the food ourselves was hugely entertaining—and we saw several families making an event of their visit. There was even tween birthday party going on in a private room while we were there.
The food, however, was the real star. Each ingredient was extremely fresh and sliced to perfection to facilitate cooking so that the rich broth imbued every flavor. The sliced beef cooked in a matter of seconds and was buttery in the mouth.
Two particular standouts were the stuffed fish balls and fried bean curd both of which puffed to twice their size once cooked. The mild Mushroom Clear Soup complemented the savory, salty flavors of the fish ball nicely while the tofu benefitted from the spicy snap of the Chengdu broth.
The appetizers at Han are as unique and diverse as the main course. We had the Sweet Potato Pastry, which was more like a patty made from mashed sweet potato and coated in crispy breadcrumbs. Slightly sweet with a hint of savor, this simple starter was an absolute standout for texture and taste.
Just as at Shu, Chef Huang’s outstanding spicy pork Chengdu Dumplings are available but this time we tried the vegetable dumplings which were delicately flavored yet hearty enough to compare with any meat-filled version. All of Han’s dumplings are handmade by the restaurant. Another appetizer we tried was Black Rice Congee, an extremely traditional water-based porridge of black rice and goji berries. With its mild, cooling flavor this was an ideal palate cleanser between courses of our hot pot meal.
DIY dipping sauces are integral to Hot Pot dining, and HAN has a full condiment bar with every imaginable sauce you can think of. In addition, to standard favorites like soy, hoisin, and red chili oil there are two house-specialty sauces—one with predominately sweet and one with predominately savory overtones—that perfectly balance salty, meaty, sweet, and spicy flavors.
True to Chef Huang’s abundant hospitality, HAN also has a menu of noodle dishes and fried rice varieties for those in your party who might not be hot pot fans.
Eating at HAN is an immersive experience of taste, technique and atmosphere that’s definitely worth the trip to West Hartford. A word of advice: come hungry with plenty of time to spare, the portions are generous and you’ll want to take your time to fully enjoy hot pot dining.
310 Prospect Ave, Hartford, CT 06106