Shanghai hot pot chain Hai Di Lao, the darling of spicy broth-loving diners throughout China and Singapore, will test the American market when it launches a branch in California this summer. The testing ground will be Westfield Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, where a profound Asian-Pacific migration in the two decades has transformed the suburbs East of Los Angeles into the largest aggregation of Chinese outside of Asia.
Hai Di Lao will face plenty of competition – hot pot restaurants are everywhere in the San Gabriel Valley – but the communal fun-with-broth dish is so beloved here there may always be room for another ‘Chinese fondue‘ venue.
The restaurant’s name literally means ‘fishing the bottom of the ocean‘ in Mandarin, reflective of the hot pot cooking style of dipping raw meats and vegetable in pots of simmering, seasoned broth.
Setting Hai Di Lao apart from the pack will be the entertaining servers, or noodle masters, seen here. It’s a spellbinding production – young kids in gym garb appear tableside, twirling jump rope-length noodles every which way, olympic floor exercise-style, before depositing them in your boiling cauldron. Owner Zhang Yong recently told the Wall Street Journal that noodle masters train four to six months before taking their dance to the restaurant’s dining room.
Noodle dancing is not the chain’s only unique feature. While waiting for a table diners enjoy the pleasures of manicures, hand massages and shoeshines. Waiting rooms are flush with internet terminals, checkers games and free spicy snacks. Fresh, soft slippers are available to slip into while eating. Servers hand out hair elastics to prevent patrons from cooking their hair. Plastic bags at the tables protect cell phones from harm.
Go beyond all the engaging gimmickry and Hai Di Lao has earned a reputation for delicious hot pot ingredients – customers in the Orient also love the polished, swanky dining rooms.
Zhang is one of just a few China-based restauranteurs to attempt stateside expansion, but he has confidence in his creative approach , “One great thing about Americans is that they are a very curious group of people.” Still, Zhang may need to modify some features, like the waiting-area manicurists, “…not everything that works for China will work for the U.S. Chinese might like a big warm welcome, and Americans might want a nice, quiet environment.”
In other words, we may not like commingling our dinners with nail clippings.