Hot pot cooking has come to Mills 50, the downtown district known for its abundance of Asian restaurants. Hot pot cooking, which is known by many names in various countries, including shabu shabu and sukiyaki (Japan) and cu lao (Vietnam), might be thought of as an Asian version of fondue, wherein raw ingredients are cooked at the table by the diners themselves. But unlike the cheese or oil that is generally used for cooking in American fondue restaurants, hot pot cafes use broth to cook the meats, vegetables and noodles to make a sort of soup. We recently saw the introduction of hot pot cooking to the area at the whimsically named Hotto Potto in Winter Park.
The new hot potter is the decidedly unimaginatively named but wonderfully operated Noodles and Rice Cafe, which opened recently in the space that once was Blue Bistro on Mills Avenue. (More recently it was an international market that specialized in European and Russian imported foods.) Actually, NandR offers what it calls mini hot pot -- actual hot pots that are used in China, the owner told me, are very large, big enough to serve a large family.
At Rice and Noodles Cafe, the hot pots are bountiful enough even as minis. As with Hotto Potto, the cooking is done with induction heating elements build into the tables. Traditionally, in China, one might find coal-fueled elements. Elsewhere, butane burners provide the heat.
Noodles and Rice Cafe’s cooking tables are rather rustic looking picnic-style tables and benches, which are not the most comfortable things but bearable. The tabletops are covered with a thick grade of clear plastic sheeting, and the induction wells are embedded in the tabletop, hidden from view when guests are first seated by white plates that look like typical chargers or place settings.
There are a variety of broths to choose from, including beef, chicken and fish, plus herbal, miso and a spicy Thai version. (A hotter pot?) Vegan options are also available.
The list of ingredients to add to your hot pot -- proteins, vegetables and noodles -- is also extensive with well over 50 items. Guests are offered a long ordering sheet, a la a sushi menu, and a pencil to make their selections. Be aware, however: each option is individually priced, and if you’re not careful, the items can add up quickly.
I chose a basic beef broth, broccoli, beef balls and rice noodles, which came to around $10. My broth was brought to the table by a young man I assumed to be the chef (there are some things that the guests don’t cook themselves), who showed me how to adjust the temperature of the liquid, which quickly came to a rolling simmer. My server brought my plate of ingredients, which were mostly already cooked and just needed to be heated. If I had ordered chicken or beef or any of the other meats or seafood, a platter of raw food would have been presented.
I dumped the ingredients into the broth and waited for it to return to a boil, and after a few minutes I scooped out the meats, veggies and noodles using a slotted ladle and put them into my bowl. A ladle without holes would have been nice to get more of the broth. Instead, I used my plastic soup spoon to transfer the soup.
My choices weren’t all that inspiring, though I did enjoy them. I would have liked to have spiced it up a bit. It wasn’t until I was leaving that I noticed a condiment table that would have allowed me to do just that. There were various sauces and other items to add, such as scallions, that would have made the soup even better. How I wish someone had pointed them out to me when I ordered.
On another visit, I had a non-hot-pot item, a house special of Hong Kong style noodles tossed with onions in a spicy sauce. I had mine with pork, priced at $7.95. It was not a tremendous amount of food, but just enough to be filling. And the noodles, which I was told are made in-house, were perfect.
Rustic is the best word to describe the decor. Besides the wooden picnic tables for hot potting guests, a few regular booths -- with padded seats and not plastic! -- are also available. Railings and dividers create a cubicle effect. Upon entering, you’ll face a heated cabinet with some of the day’s meats hanging in it, including whole chickens and slabs of ribs, a display reminiscent of Chinatown storefronts. No duck yet, but I’m told it will eventually be offered.
I liked all the people I encountered at Noodles and Rice. They were welcoming, helpful (with the exception of the condiment table omission) and genuinely happy to have my business. And I saw all the other guests receiving the same service. I look forward to returning. After all, I still have to try one of the rice dishes.
Noodles and Rice Cafe is at 813 N. Mills Ave., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here is a link to noodlesandricecafe.com. The phone number is 407-895-8833.