With winter coming, Har Mar eateries offer adventurous Asian broths


Mike Munzenrider A rosy red beef roll is added to simmering broth at Hot Pot 7 by Doan Nguyen, co-owner of that new restaurant in Har Mar Mall, where Vietnamese flavors rule and individual cooking pots are inset into tables.

submitted photo Tso Chen dips into a bowl of ramen, rich with broth, vegetables and noodles, at recently-opened Ichiddo Ramen & BBQ, adjacent to Hot Pot 7 in a row of Har Mar Asian restaurants. On the wall behind him are some of the 800 soup spoons on display.

An enlarging Asian dining enclave on the north end of Har Mar Mall features two new establishments where savory broths are boiling and eating adventures await. With chilly weather imminent, they are the places to go for inner warmth. 

Gone from that stretch of the mall are the likes of Baja Sol and Eddington's. Newly opened this fall, adjacent to the venerable Leeann Chin, are Hot Pot 7 and Ichiddo Ramen & BBQ, next-door neighbors. Just a bit east is a fourth option, Kyoto Sushi.

Today, we concentrate on hot pot and ramen, both familiar formats to lovers of Far East foods. What makes Hot Pot 7 unique is that you don't have to share. On numerous trips to China, Hong Kong and Vietnam, I have tried hot pot, but it was a communal experience — one large simmering cauldron centering the table where friends dipped in for meat and vegetables, and then drank broth until the pot was dry.

 

Do it yourself

At Hot Pot 7, each person orders their choice of broth: Thai with fragrant elements such as chili, lime leaves, galangal and lemon grass; pork bone-enhanced with daikons and vegetables; or vegetarian made with vegetable paste, ginger, daikon and rice vinegar. Here's a tip: the longer each potful cooks in the kitchen, the more intense flavors become, so late night dining might be an advantage — unless the huge cookpots run dry. 

Next comes the choice of rice vermicelli, egg noodles or bean threads. Here's another tip: egg noodles come uncooked and soak up a lot of broth — I had to ask for additional liquid — but vermicelli arrives already softened and not so thirsty.

Finally, select beef, pork, chicken, seafood or vegetarian platters to stir into the broth of choice. I tried seafood, which included mussels, shrimp, clams, fish balls and tofu, but the paper-thin rosy red beef rolls that one of my dining companions selected looked so tempting that I ordered a plateful ($3.95) to add to my pot for a surf-and-turf combo. 

Additional side orders include quail eggs, tofu skin, broccoli, and enoki or oyster mushrooms, all very reasonable. The seafood hot pot is the priciest at $14.95; vegetarian is least costly at $11.95. All versions come with plentiful vegetables such as carrots, bean sprouts and bok choy.

But you can't put a price on the sense of adventure Hot Pot 7 dining offers. Although I am told there might be a similar set-up in the Dinkytown area, I had never before encountered  individual pots inset into tables. Each has its own temperature control to keep the broth simmering just right, and it's pure fun to use chopsticks to add ingredients and watch them cook. It doesn't take long before you're slurping noodles and spooning savory tidbits and piping hot liquid.

The décor is also delightful. The owners' sister shopped for an array of artistic platters in Vietnam, which are plentifully mounted on the wall, interspersed with painted stands of bamboo. I smell franchise potential, but co-owner Doan Nguyen said it's too early to think about that. "We're too busy getting this place going," said the young cook-entrepreneur.

Someone told me that the 7 in the name refers to the seven Vietnamese brothers who started the restaurant. Not quite true: Doan's partner is his brother, Bryan, but they come from a family of 11 siblings who all help out, from painting the walls before opening to working shifts to contributing start-up costs. 

Did I mention there are several brothers-in-law, as well? Doan was just 4 when his family came to Minnesota from the Saigon area. Bryan was born here, and they went to St. Anthony schools. Their family was not in the restaurant business previously so they are learning as they go.

On a second visit, I tried that Vietnamese staple, pho (beef, chicken or seafood), and totally enjoyed the flavors, including a hint of star anise in the broth. But that comes to the table already cooked. You can add bean sprouts, leaf basil or peppers if you dare, but it wasn't the same cooking kick as hot pot.

 

Time for ramen

Next door at Ichiddo, I felt like I had been whisked to Japan, especially when I noted the informal dining counter, reminiscent of sake and ramen joints in Tokyo, with wooden signs hanging overhead listing menu items, written in Japanese. Don't worry, there's a full English menu, which lists a half page of appetizers for nibbling. 

My friend and I tried a steamed bun (more like a wrap) folded over a slice of fried chicken and dressings. Tasty and unique. I might return to try donburi, a rice and meat mix, or stir-fry ramen without broth, but our focus was on regular ramen — there are 11 options. 

I chose beef ramen ($10.95) garnished with fish cake, a half egg, bamboo shoots, black fungus (in the mushroom family) and green onion. Atop the bowlful was a mini-dish of Ichiddo's proprietary Chef's Special Hot Sauce. Don't dump it all in at once; keep adding until you get the level of heat you want in your soup. About half of it suited me.

My friend's version was the popular char siu ramen ($11.95) made with roasted pork belly. She was very pleased with her bowlful. If you like to experiment, there are 16 additional toppings, such as kimchi or nori that can be ordered at minimal cost.

Tso (Joe) Chen, whose family originated in Taiwan and previously lived in Chicago, is the manager of the Har Mar location, which is the fourth in the metro area, plus one in Las Vegas. More are planned for the suburban Twin Cities. Several partners are involved. They operate a small factory in Minneapolis where sauce and ingredients are made and distributed to all the locations to ensure consistency.

Chen said that the name Ichiddo was made up, but to him it means "happy table" or "happy customer." Both could refer to the large communal table centering the restaurant, which is popular with sociable folks. 

Both Chen and Nyguen say business is good and winter will be even busier, but I must commend both restaurants, before the snow flies, for their frozen desserts. At Ichiddo, try mochi ice cream ($3.95), your choice of flavors (mango, strawberry and the most popular green tea among them). A ball of ice cream is rolled in a marshmallow-like rice flour-pudding mixture. Fascinating. 

At Hot Pot 7, they make the oh-so-trendy rolled ice cream ($5.45 — enough for four people) where a layer of liquid ice cream mixture (banana, durian, taro, green tea, mango or strawberry) is poured on a freezer plate, then scraped into rolls when solid.

Both restaurants are an adventure — right down to dessert.

 

–Eleanor Ostman can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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