Clay Pot Buffet
A culinary and cultural treat for Austin
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., July 14, 2006
Clay Pot Buffet
13000 N. I-35 #12-200, 833-8837
Monday-Friday, 11am-2:30pm; 5-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-10pm
Whether you call it clay pot, fire pot, hot pot, steamboat, huo guo, or Thai suki, this communal method of cooking originated in Mongolia more than a thousand years ago. Nomadic horsemen would settle around the fire in the evening and plunge foodstuffs into a central cauldron of bubbling soup. By the first century, it had spread into Southern China, and today, the method of cooking is wildly popular throughout all of Southeast Asia.
Clay Pot Buffet, which has been open for 10 months, is owned by Mindy Hong, a statuesque, soon-to-be-retired United international flight attendant of Chinese-Vietnamese descent. She came to Austin by way of Denver and Boston, finding Central Texas the ideal spot to settle down. Mindy has brought Austin its first clay pot restaurant. It may seem exotic at first, but staff is eager to offer help and advice for the uninitiated. Prices are very reasonable: $7.95 for lunch, $11.95 for evenings during the week, and $13.95 for evenings on weekends.
The restaurant is located just south of the mega Wal-Mart, which is north of Parmer on the west side of I-35. In the center of the room is a long refrigerated counter holding bowls of presliced, uncooked foods ready for their soupy bath. On one end is a hot section, holding such treats as stir-fried crab in a delicious tangy sauce, steamed whole crabs, fried chicken wings, fried rice, Thai tofu soup, edamame, steamed Chinese buns, sesame balls, and the like.
The south end of the cold counter holds an appetizing sesame-kissed seaweed and mung bean noodle salad, a delectable squid salad with green papaya and black fungus, poached slices of octopus, clams in the shell, and slivers of raw tuna and salmon for make-your-own sashimi (with the requisite wasabi and pickled ginger). One could easily fill up on just the cold section and be completely satiated. But then you wouldn't get to cook your own meal in the simmering hot pots on each table.
There are two-sided pots on each tabletop burner, each holding a garlic-seasoned chicken stock on one side, and a spicy lemongrass version on the other. Tools are provided: a small, long-handled wire basket for dunking; crackers for extracting the crab meat; a ladle to get the luscious soup at the end; and chopsticks, forks, and spoons.
Once you've quelled the initial hunger with appetizers, you cruise the line and choose from a large array of items to be cooked at will, as much as you like: whole shrimp, scallops, squid (15 seconds is long enough ... really!), catfish, fresh oysters, baby octopus, mussels, fish balls, beef balls, pork balls, tripe, tofu. On the vegetable side, you'll find Napa cabbage, baby bok choy, watercress, spinach, mung bean noodles, and thin egg noodles.
On the table is a bowl of hot pot dipping sauce, made from Hong's grandmother's recipe with lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chile, and sesame oil. The line holds soy, hoisin, and chile sauce for custom-tuning your sauce. Now, you're ready to cook: Take the selected items in any order you choose and place them in the simmering stock until they're as cooked as you like them. Use the small basket to extract them, place them on your plate, and dip them in sauce before eating. Once you have eaten your fill, ladle the remaining intensely rich stock into your bowl for the denouement.
Clay Pot is a culinary and cultural treat for Austin, loaded with fresh seafood, cooked and eaten in a whole new way. It's an ideal dining experience for a group of friends: interactive hands-on dining at its best.