The undeniably carnal high that comes from dropping meat and veg into scalding broth powered by gas and flames at the dining table is something a good many of the world’s peoples are into. China alone accounts for at least ten distinct varieties of hot pot across its highly nuanced regional gastro-map, but neighbouring countries Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand are also bubbling many of their own unique broths.
In this exercise, we’ve plucked out six of the city’s most impressive hot pots from across East Asia and indexed them by country and frenzy factor, with five representing frenzy AF. Wrangle a crew – you’ll generally want at least four – and prepare to get a little messy (and smelly – good smelly) at one of Melbourne’s best. If you're still hunting some of Melbourne's bests, try hitting up our favourite Korean BBQ joints or test your spice levels with Melbourne's hottest dishes.
Melbourne's best hot pots
Order: Half mushroom and half spicy soup base
Type: Sichuan/Chongqing hot pot
Frenzy factor: 4
Chongqing and its adjacent Sichuan Province are hot pot grandmasters. Here, specially designed tables are fitted with a sunken hot pot receptacle that houses an ornate steel pot. The pot is then often subdivided into at least two (sometimes nine-plus) different broth regions, with the fiery hot mala variety – usually a beef stock that grunts with tonnes of chillies and Sichuan peppercorns – a must-order. Patrons then order plates of raw ingredients off the menu, concoct themselves a custom sauce from the DIY sauce station, and get to business.
Cartoon pop art covers the walls at David’s, a cute modern flourish that plays well against the otherwise lantern- and lattice-heavy Sichuan-kitsch design. We order a partitioned pot – one side mushroom broth, one side medium spicy mala broth – rolled pork belly, silken tofu strands, beef balls and a variety of vegetables, and we do so by scanning a QR code unique to our table through giant Chinese social media app WeChat. The soup is delivered to the table in a plastic cryovac bag, emptied into the pot and combined with a giant heart-shaped mould of oil to create the mala broth – a deeply bovine base that coats all comers with the inimitable lip-quivering hum of the Sichuan peppercorn, and whose rich aroma tends to cling to idle outerwear. Fortunately, David’s has a human-sized deodorising machine that rids you of your stench at the touch of a button as you leave.
We caught David’s in a rare rainy Tuesday lull between lunch and dinner service, but for the most part you’ll find it heaving with Chinese university students day and night. It’s by no means the cheapest hot pot in the city, but the depth of the mala broth alone justifies the visit. This one is best for Large groups.
Order: Traditional Beijing lamb pot
Type: Beijing hot pot
Frenzy factor: 3.5
Hot pot from the Chinese capital is a markedly lighter affair than that found in and around Sichuan and Chongqing. Traditionally, the broth is lamb-based, and tends to be much thinner than its west Chinese equivalent, meaning it is also far less fatiguing – and nowhere near as spicy. It’s also generally served in a fetching copper pot.
Another feather in the cap of Carlton’s growing regional Chinese food scene, No 1 Delicious Hot Pot & BBQ is located just south of the University of Melbourne and splits its culinary offerings by floor: Chinese street barbecue (chuan’er) downstairs; amazing Beijing hot pot upstairs. The exposed-beam, pseudo-warehouse schtick at No 1 gives its enormous floorspace a slightly cool edge – not generally analogous with hot pot but wholly welcome – which is complemented by the thoughtful presentation and quality of the hot pot ingredients.
The small copper pots here mean that each punter must order their own individual vessel and broth, but with five different soup bases, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided you’re dining with sharers. We plump for the traditional Beijing lamb hot pot flavoured with tomato and dates, and order beef brisket, veggies and what must be Victoria’s collective annual yield of quail eggs. The nourishing lamb base is mellow enough to let the quality of the ingredients speak for itself, but the highlight at No 1 is its extensive DIY sauce station, replete with beef paste and a basketball-sized bowl of unadulterated crystal MSG.
Order: Seafood jeongol
Type: Korean hot pot
Frenzy factor: 2.5
Unlike the choose-your-own-adventure nature of its wildly popular barbecue, jeongol, a popular Korean-style hot pot, hits the table preloaded with everything you’ll be eating already arranged inside the pot, and sits above a portable gas burner that sets its contents asimmer from below.
Guhng the Palace has refined digs rising four stories over McKillop Street in the CBD – a handsomely appointed and moodily lit space from which to do your hot potting. The seafood jeongol comprises an artfully arranged combo of fresh fish, scallops, mussels, octopus, prawns, several species of mushroom and a handful of vegetables in a delicate and pleasantly salty fish soup that, unlike its Chinese counterparts, is 100 per cent there for the drinking. Once the soup in the shallow pot begins to bubble, we’re instructed to hit the veggies first before moving onto the seafood; all magnificently fresh and all the better for the extra minutes spent bathed in the broth.
Bolstered by a starburst trio of kimchi, pickled onions and pickled turnip – all bottomless – at $49 for two, it’s a very well-priced option for hot pot enthusiasts. Important to note: this isn’t the blisteringly raucous atmosphere you might find at another Melbourne Korean institution, say, Gami Chicken and Beer. Rather, its sense of decorum sets a cool mood of its own, and for seafood fanatics, the hot pot is arguably the best in the city.
Order: Ishikari Nabe (pork belly and salmon fin hot pot)
Type: Japanese hot pot
Frenzy factor: 3
A prolific hot pot nation, Japan’s nabe come in many forms. Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki represent two of the country’s most popular options, the latter a beef-forward pot accompanied by a raw egg for dipping, while chankonabe is a protein-heavy affair that was devised to help Sumo wrestlers gain weight, but when served in regular-sized portions is not inherently Sumo-y.
Cosy Chinatown hole-in-the-wall Yamato has been ladling stellar nabe for decades. Plastered in Japanese beer and wine ads new and old, the 20-seater offers five nabe varieties: shabu-shabu; sukiyaki; the chankonabe-esque yamato nabe; the seafood-heavy Yose Nabe; and the surf‘n’turf collab, ishikari nabe.
We opt for the latter and our pot arrives above a portable gas burner, stuffed snug with a curious assortment of pork belly, fish balls, taro-filled money bags, seafood highlighter, fibrous tofu skin and fatty salmon fin, set among mushrooms of several varieties, vegetables and rice noodles. Underscored by a medium-weight miso broth, the ishikari nabe looks as though it were conceptualised by an early-’70s interior designer on a long creative leash, but is one of the most substantial and satisfying pots in the city. You’ll need a minimum of two diners to the one pot here.
Order: Lau de (goat hot pot)
Type: Vietnamese hot pot
Frenzy factor 3.5
Hopping southwest from Japan, Vietnam boasts a proud hot pot culture of its own. Lau de and lau de bien – goat and seafood hot pot respectively – are two of the country’s more popular variations, the heady aromatics of the former often balanced out with copious greens and a sharp accompanying sauce.
Hopping southeast from the CBD, Springvale jewel Moon Diem Hen is positioned about as inconspicuously as can be on a lane adjacent to a car park, and does both with aplomb. The restaurant is famous for its goat number: a deep pot of mushroom, taro, tofu and crudely hacked hunks of goat meat – plenty of thick skin attached – in a brooding goat stock, accompanied by a plate of greens and coils of thin wheat noodles that are added to the fray at the diners’ discretion, but must be rescued 60 seconds thereafter. It’s another richly aromatic experience, but the freshness of the greens and unique zing of the brilliant fermented tofu dipping sauce are enough to balance out the bottomless depth of the mutton.
Order: Mookata (Thai barbecue hot pot) from Soi 38
Type: Thai hot pot
Frenzy factor: 5
While Thailand has its own hot pot canon, for ours, the most exciting and interesting is mookata: a blend of barbecue and hot pot that we scarcely deserve. Meat and vegetables are either cooked on the hot plate, or in the shallow moat of broth by which the hot plate is girt – or both.
Another car park favourite, Soi 38 is located on the bottom floor of the Wilson car park just off the Parisian end of Bourke Street, and is Melbourne’s new plastic-stooled home of mookata. After running arguably Melbourne’s best Bangkok street noodle program for the last couple of years, they now offer punters a Thai-style barbecue set for two, which includes pork neck, belly and liver, prawns, calamari, vegetables, glass noodles and an egg, and get to frying, poaching, or froaching their bounty. All of the ingredients are sliced super thin, so it pays to be vigilant when cooking your meat.
Soi 38 also offers a more traditional Northeastern Thailand-style hot pot, featuring similar ingredients skewed slightly in the porcine direction. Like the lamb hot pot at No 1 delicious, a thin, unobtrusive broth allows the flavour of the meat and veg to carry themselves, but the ace in the sleeve here is a complex and wildly vibrant tamarind-clad chilli sauce that justifies a visit in itself.