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British Columbia Hai Di Lao Hot Pot in Richmond, B.C. delivers on the entertainment, but not so much the food

The sauce bar at Hai Di Lao Hot Pot in Richmond, B.C., on Feb. 26, 2019.

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Name: Hai Di Lao Hot Pot

Location: 200-5890 No. 3 Rd., Richmond

Phone: 604-370-6665

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Prices: Soup base, $20.80; all-you-can-eat sauces, $3.99; dipping dishes, $4.95 to $29.95

Additional information: Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Limited reservations available.

Rating system: Casual dining

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Throughout the course of your meal at Hai Di Lao Hot Pot, you will watch a bian lian face-changing performer – in full Sichuan opera-esque mask, fan and cape regalia – whirl through the aisles.

You will hear, at least half a dozen times, a beepy-cartoon rendition of Happy Birthday, which is blared through the overhead speakers as a gaggle of servers crowd around the guest of honour with a blinking LED light board.

And you will feel the flick of hand-pulled noodles as a young dancer in a white tracksuit spins long dough ribbons around your table and snaps them at your camera.

Diners watch a server make hand-pulled noodles around their table at Hai Di Lao Hot Pot.

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You might ask yourself, “Is this the Chinese equivalent of Benihana or the new Chuck E. Cheese’s?”

Whatever you make of the sensory-assaulting gong show, know this: The first Canadian location of the Chinese restaurant chain, which hails from Sichuan province, has more than 300 restaurants around the world and was valued at US$12-billion for its initial public offering on the Asian exchanges last fall. It is the most popular restaurant of the moment in Metro Vancouver.

Earlier this week, Hai Di Lao won the Chinese Restaurant Awards Diners’ Choice picks for best new and best hot pot restaurants, along with honourable mention for best service. Even before the awards were announced, there was a month-long wait for reservations. Four weeks! Granted, the 200-seat restaurant only takes about 10 reservations a night. As with all other locations, diners are encouraged to show up early and get in line.

The wait is part of the whole experience. In Richmond, a spacious front lobby is equipped with a popcorn machine, board games and trays of candy. Unfortunately, they do not offer manicures, shoe shines or hand massages, as they do in some Asian cities.

When I arrived last week for a long-awaited reservation, the lobby was overflowing and, according to an electronic board on the wall, there were 63 tables ahead. I wouldn’t put much faith in those numbers, mind you. Three hours later, the lounge was empty and, according to the board, there were still 29 tables ahead.

Even with a reservation, you cannot bypass the crowds and venture into the dining room unaccompanied to find your party.

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“Wait!” the host chirped, scampering to catch up.

“There are the bathrooms,” she pointed, as we walked down a long row of modular booths covered in blonde-wood veneer and olive-green vinyl. Although clean and bright, the cafeteria-like decor is blandly nondescript, save for the odd red-paper lantern hanging from dropped ceilings.

“May I take your coat?” she asked, folding and tucking it into a drawer under the seat bench, then handing me a long apron in exchange.

Before returning to the lobby, she poured me a glass of lemon water from a plastic pitcher affixed to the side of the table and brought us a plate of fruit from the spotless self-serve sauce bar. The oranges were unnaturally sweet and juicy. Perhaps they were sprinkled with “Gourmet Powder,” one of the dozens of condiments available. It looks like shimmery Maldon salt flakes, but is most likely MSG (monosodium glutamate).

Had I been dining alone, the hostess would have brought me a giant teddy bear for company. Thankfully, I was meeting friends, who were already placing an order by iPad. You just click on the shopping cart and your selection goes straight to the kitchen. You can even pay with WeChat if you choose. No wonder the servers have time to fluff the tables with stuffed animals and fruit.

A giant teddy bear for company if you're eating alone at Hai Di Lao Hot Pot in Richmond, B.C.

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When I go to a restaurant, I prefer to have the kitchen do the cooking for me. I can appreciate hot pot if the broths and sides are more complex and flavourful than something you could just pick up at a T&T Supermarket and assemble quickly. Hai Di Lao, for the most part, does not pass that test.

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The soup bases aren’t terrible and Hai Di Lao is somewhat unique in that you can order four at once. We try the non-traditional tomato (which tastes like a good pasta fagioli broth), pork bone (milky and rich with a big fatty knuckle at the bottom), spicy with sediment (a bold, yet flat, blast of Novocain heat from dried Sichuan peppercorns) and pickled cabbage (earthy and sour).

The meats taste like the flavour has been frozen right out of them. A whiff of dark gaminess is the only note distinguishing an expensive portion of marbled prime beef rib ($25.95) from lowly beef tongue ($12.95). The Sichuan-marinated lamb has only a faint trace of ma-la tingle. Teochew meatballs are as hard and bouncy as squash balls (the racquet sport, not the vegetable).

It all overcooks to a grey, shrivelled mess in a matter of seconds anyway, while the taro falls apart into mush and the bamboo shoots remain rock hard no matter how long we dunk them. Where is that iPad with the recommended cooking times when you need it?

A server makes shrimp paste tossed in raw egg stuffing tableside.

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The fried bean curd rolls are nicely spongy and soak up the broths. Or is that the beef trachea? The most interesting dish that doesn’t taste like it came prepackaged off a shelf is a secret menu item – gluten balls stuffed tableside with shrimp paste tossed in raw egg.

There are far more intriguing hot pot restaurants in Vancouver: Dolar Shop offers premium (Ocean Wise) seafood in a refined setting; Yu Shang (also a member of Ocean Wise) has better sauce combinations and personalized hot pots; and then there is the legendary Landmark, which makes the most amazing light and airy tofu puffs and, if you order a whole fish, will fry the bones in a terrific salt and pepper batter.

But they don’t have noodle dancers. If theatrical dining is your thing, I suppose it’s worth getting in line.

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Gluten balls stuffed with shrimp paste tossed in raw egg.

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