Chinese hot pot is an age-old dining tradition that traces back to the ancient Zhou dynasty. A flavored broth is served in either a bronze or cast iron pot at boiling temperatures. Guests order raw meats and vegetables and cook them at the table and share with friends. This is a unique dining experience that restaurateurs Harry and Qingling Huang are bringing to the Mountain View area with Dong Lai Shun.
The first Dong Lai Shun restaurant was opened over one hundred and twenty years ago in Beijing, China. In that century, Dong Lai Shun became one of the most popular chain restaurants in the country. The location in Mountain View is the first outpost for the chain in the United States.
Having moved to the bay area twenty years ago, Harry Huang often traveled between the U.S. and China. He says the move to open an authentic hot pot restaurant is a response to the changes he’s seen in that time.
“Both countries are undergoing tremendous changes,” Huang observes. “Multiculturalism has rapidly changed our lives in the past two decades, and the dietary needs of more diverse groups are also changing. Many of our friends who have visited China talked about the experience of eating there compared to Chinese food in the United States after they came back, and talked about how authentic Chinese food is not available locally. So, we had the idea to build a restaurant with Chinese culture in the city of high-tech gathering – Mountain View.”
Huang says that Beijing hot pot is not just culturally represented by Dong Lai Shun’s delicious food, but by the interior design as well. Intricate wood carvings and beautiful marble murals inside the restaurant accentuate the rich and time-honored heritage of Beijing culture.
“We wanted to bring an atmosphere that celebrates the history and not just the food,” Huang elaborates. “We put a lot of time into cultivating that experience for people.”
Harry Huang and his wife Qingling franchised the restaurant in 2016. At their soft opening, they noticed a particular pattern among their clientele that has remained consistent in the years since. An overwhelming majority of their customers are Asian and already familiar with the Dong Lai Shun reputation. Among Americans, however, there seems to be an uncertainty in trying out the Chinese cuisine.
“Asians already knew us,” Huang speculates. “It’s definitely new for a lot of people [here in the U.S.]. We’re working on getting local people more accustomed to the concept.”
Traditionally, hot pot is served with one large broth pot for a table to share and dip their ingredients into. The Huang’s restaurant offers a modified version they call “family style” that may prove more hygienically advantageous in these trying times.
“The restaurant uses copper hot pots which are beneficial to the human body, and one pot per person makes everyone more hygienic,” Huang explains.
Copper pots are antibacterial, free from the microorganisms that cause illness when cooking. Giving everyone their own copper pots to dunk their treats in also helps reduce the risk of contamination. The conductive property of copper means it heats up faster, making for quicker service in comparison to other hot pot restaurants.
Additionally, family style allows a table to try more than one flavor of broth at a time, appealing to a wider variety of palates. Huang is confident that these styles of dining will win over the locals.
“Once people try it out, they usually come back and they’re basically pros at it, they already know what to order next time,” he says confidently.
Additional Trepidation in the Age of Covid-19
Despite a century-old reputation, Dong Lai Shun was among the thousands of restaurants impacted by the shelter in place orders.
“We noticed something big was happening when a lot of our Asian customers stopped coming,” Harry recalls of the days leading up to closing. “I think they knew what was happening.”
Harry and Qingling have been able to offer takeout and delivery during the pandemic, but have been struggling to keep up with the cost of utilities and the lease, much like other restaurants during these difficult times. Dong Lai Shun recently resumed seating tables on their patio, and is waiting for the green light from the city and county to take customers indoors. In the meantime, they still have to combat local apprehensions to get folks through the door.
“Asian folks are still concerned [about the virus],” Harry postulates, “and our guests are still about 70% Asian and 30% American.”
How these tough new realities will impact the restaurant remains to be seen, but the pandemic coupled with culinary apprehensions make for a big hill to climb. Still, Dong Lai Shun is a cultural experience rich in tradition, and Harry and Qingling remain committed to their loyal customers and ready to impress all hot pot newcomers.