I’ve always been a fan of restaurants where you can be a part of the cooking process – from fondue to hot rock to Mongolian grills. However, “hot pot” cooking – an Asian tradition that goes back thousands of years, has never been on my radar. We had been curious about Johnny Chu’s (of Sochu House, Sens and Fate) Tien Wong Hot Pot in Chandler (on N. Alma School Road between W. Elliot and W. Warner roads), but rarely visit that part of sprawling metro Phoenix. An event in Mesa got us close enough to give it a try, and now that we’ve tried it, we can say it’s worth the trip!
The restaurant is in an unassuming strip mall, and while tastefully decorated, it lacked the “urban hipness” I’m used to at Chu’s other locations. However, the service was very good, especially since we needed some coaching with ordering and cooking the food.
The menu is a check list of broths and ingredients.
It can be a bit overwhelming to decide just how much to order. We probably could have made better choices, but it was a fun experiment. Since the prices are very reasonable (i.e. $2 for tofu), over-ordering isn’t really a problem.
First, all of the broths on the menu can be made vegetarian (vegan). Just ask! We couldn’t decide on a single broth (I like spicy, my husband does not) so we went with the Ying Yang (half house original herbal broth, half house ma la spicy broth). I’ll admit I was a bit terrified when I saw how many hot peppers were floating in the hot side.
I could feel my guts tremble in fear. Turns out that although it was incredibly spicy, I didn’t suffer the painful effects I expected (i.e. I wasn’t doubled over in pain at 3:00 a.m.). My guess is it’s because of the fresh, healthy and clearly vegan ingredients cooked in it, plus it didn’t contain the mystery oils and sugars normally found in spicy Asian food. I think next time we’ll try a compromise with the Spicy Lemongrass broth – more flavor that the original broth and less heat than the spicy broth.
Then came the selection of items too cook. The basic vegan options are mushrooms & vegetables, and tofu & noodles. We ordered brown mushrooms (for my husband’s side only!), corn (which was on the cob – odd), baby bok choy, watercress and spinach. Turns out we ordered far too many greens. I think they should offer a few more standard vegetable options such as carrots, green peppers, onions, broccoli, etc. but I guess that wouldn’t be very authentic!
They had a huge variety of different types of tofu. We opted for the bean curd skins and homemade iced tofu, both of which were fairly non-traditional.
We probably should have ordered a firm or 5-spiced tofu just to have something with more bite. We also ordered udon noodles and rice (but the rice wasn’t needed). Also of note, the meal came with dipping sauces – one was a soy-based sauce, the other a spicy peanut sauce. Both were great – especially for items that didn’t gain much flavor from the broth such as the corn on the cob.
Once we got through the ordering process, the magic happened. The broth was set to boil and we slowly added ingredients based on the directions given – longer for the corn, less time for the noodles and tofu. Soon the hot pot became a bubbling cauldron of flavor.
Being able to cook the food ourselves was a fun, shared experience — great for a “date night.” The challenge was to not lose the tofu skins into the broth, or to burn the noodles that had sunk to the bottom of the pot. And of course it was important to not burn my mouth by eating the results straight from the pot (let it cool first!). At the end, the broth was transformed into a delicious veggie soup.
While it might be a bit of a journey to get to Tien Wong from central Phoenix, anyone looking for an adventurous, healthy and totally vegan meal should make the trip. We’ll be going back soon!