Emotions boil over at Volcano Hot Pot, and it’s not even for a good reason.
Disclaimer: The following is not a food review. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how the food tasted; I was too busy watching my sanity slip away with my udon noodles.
Let’s start from the beginning: It’s a Tuesday night. I’m in Winter Garden Village, parked in a lot adjacent to Volcano Hot Pot. I wanted a discreet, clear view of the entrance so I could see my date before he saw me. (Why, I don’t know. Maybe so I could mow him down if he catfished me.)
I have no excuse to be this nervous. We’d already been talking on the phone for a week or two when we decided we liked each other enough to meet in person. He suggested dinner, preferably somewhere more adventurous than traditional sit-down. I told him this new place that just opened up serves hot pot, which I understood as a sort of one-man Stone Soup situation. Getting a cute little pot of broth to fill with anything you want? Sounds like a nice, simple meal that I couldn’t possibly overcomplicate.
He was totally game, so I sent him the address, we set the date, and now I’m sitting in my car plotting to run him over before he even gets here.
Breathe, Rheya. I recognize him walking to the door and work up the nerve to step out and meet him. You’re fine.
And for the moment, I was fine. He’s great at making conversation, and I’m great at pretending my skin isn’t melting off, so our initial greeting is mercifully unawkward.
We’re seated in one of the booths, which feels a bit like being seated at a kitchen stove. Six square burners are situated around a round grill, complete with its own cute little range hood. The server explained how everything works, but I’m still too in my own head to pay much attention. It’s not like there’s much to understand about soup.
We pick our broth, the server is off, and I’ve already sprung from my seat to expend some nervous energy at the buffet table.
As I reach for a plate, I see a stack of soup spoons. I’ll need one of those, surely. Oh, there are sauce cups, too. I’ll want sauce to, uh, add to the soup? To dip stuff into? How do you dip soup? I brush it off, certain it’ll all make sense when I get to the buffet.
I peruse the wide variety of ingredients—many I recognized and a few I absolutely did not—and I don’t know where to begin. How do I find out which ones work well together? How much should I get in one sitting? Is that something I’m supposed to just know?
It was here, in the middle of the buffet line, that I realize I have no idea what I’m doing.
What the hell do I put in this thing? Surely the answer is “anything.” That’s the whole point of hot pot, right? I mean, you can’t do a buffet wrong. But you also kind of can, if you don’t know you’re not supposed to drizzle gravy on your coleslaw.
You’re fine, Rheya. I shake the thoughts from my head. Just pick normal stuff.
I gingerly stack my plate with my best guesses at “normal stuff”: Bok choy, bean sprouts, a brick of udon, a few of these long, fat mushrooms, a couple lobster lumps, some fried bread, a jenga block of krabmeat, exactly two shrimps. All deeply normal choices that normal people make.
Once my plate is full, I arrive at the sauce bar and immediately realize I did this the wrong way around. I carefully nest the sauce cup in the middle of the plate and ladle garlic sauce into it—a delicate operation. Maybe I should have set my food down first.
By the time I return to the table, both my soup and my nerves have come to a rolling boil. I grab my tongs and start chucking things into the soup like bath toys, until I glance over to my date. He sat down way before I did, and yet he’s got a plate full of stuff he hasn’t put in his pot yet.
He said he’s had hot pot before, so he probably knows what he’s doing. I could ask him, but asking questions on a first date is, of course, unacceptable. Instead I watch as he scoops one thing out with the metal soup ladle (wait, so what is this spoon for?) as it finishes cooking and replaces it with another.
So this isn’t really a “soup,” I surmise. It’s more like a liquid cookout. All well and good if you have even the barest instinct for how long stuff takes to cook. Not so much if you consult Google every time you hardboil an egg.
My eyes flicker around the table searching for some kind of reference sheet, but find nothing of the sort. I make a mental note to suggest one if I ever wrote about this place in The Local.
“You’ll want to put your mushrooms in now,” a distant voice snaps me back into my body. I look up, realizing it came from across the table. “They’ll take a while to cook. Your udon is probably done, though.”
“Oh, OK,” I say, my smile failing to mask the trepidation in my voice. I add the mushrooms and begin scooping out the udon — or trying to. The noodles are much bigger than I anticipated and keep slipping out of my grasp, as if begging me to make a metaphor about them.
As I continue to be outmaneuvered by noodles, I feel my face flush and the lump in my throat build. Breathe, Rheya, I remind myself again. You’re fi—
I’m not fine.
This isn’t “fine.” None of this is fine. I’m freaking out about meeting a guy I’ve already met and I’ve managed to be overwhelmed by soup and there’s no reason to make noodles this big and why do I have this spoon?
“I’m sorry,” I say, aware that I’m in visible distress. “This really doesn’t have anything to do with you—”
“Rheya,” he cuts through my apology, almost with a chuckle. “You’re fine.”
There’s something comforting about hearing someone else say it. A breath enters my lungs a little easier and leaves a little steadier. Maybe I am fine.
“Hey, don’t forget your mushrooms.”
What I learned from trying hot pot for the first time on a first date was fivefold.
First: Do not try something for the first time on a first date.
Second: Research new food before you go ordering it in public.
Third: Park in a discreet spot so you can see your date before they see you.(This might be bad advice.)
Fourth: It’s OK to not be an instant expert at something you try. People who know what they’re doing are happy to help you.
Finally: when in doubt, don’t take the spoon.