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The Dining Is Do-It-Yourself

The Seafood Hot Pot Buffet gives patrons all the fixings for a meal that's exactly to their liking.

March 08, 2001|LINDA BURUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At San Gabriel Square, herb connoisseurs buy primo ginseng at hundreds of dollars an ounce, and knowledgeable gourmands shop for top-quality fish at the mall's palatial Chinese supermarket, where it's sold live and wriggling, straight from the fish tanks. This is the nucleus of the most intense concentration of Chinese eating in the Western hemisphere, and it's where I've been re-educating my palate for the last decade.

On the mall's second floor, I discovered Muslim-style sesame bread at Tung Lai Shun, sampled Chiu Chow-style goose at the Nice Time Deli and learned why Chu's hand-swung noodles were worth a drive from almost anywhere in Southern California. Any visit would always turn up great new eating discoveries.

The square's newest tenant, Seafood Hot Pot Buffet, has been mobbed since it opened. The restaurant one-upped the local competition by combining three dining trends raging through the Chinese community: tabletop hot-pot cooking, all-you-can-eat buffet service and seafood. The meals include unlimited helpings from a cooked-food buffet and from another selection of raw foods for your hot pot.

As you're seated, you pass through a whirlwind of activity in the vast tile-floor dining room, where everyone acts quite at home. Enshrined in a booth, a grandmotherly lady instructs the diners at her table. At another, a tiny child intently scoops the center out of the dumplings his mother has placed in front of him.

At every table, people are busily swishing vegetables in broth, fishing out noodles or shrimp, or grilling meat and slathering it with sauce. Like novice Iron Chefs, they concoct the meals of their dreams from the same huge selection of ingredients.

Learning the Basics of Tabletop Cooking

Once you're seated, a waiter delivers a portable stove and a hot pot to your table for you to cook in (a grill costs $1 extra per diner). Plain broth fills one half of the pot; highly charged peppery broth fills the other. If you don't want such a spicy broth, ask the waiter to give you diluted hot broth or all plain broth. The centerpiece of the meal (and the only item here that isn't all-you-can-eat) is a large platter of beautiful, sweet-tasting raw shrimp in the shell.

The M.O. is: Look and learn. We discovered the ladles, soup spoons, bowls and rice we needed--none were on the table--by watching more experienced buffet enthusiasts helping themselves from carts near the buffet lines. (We never did figure out where to get the tongs we saw being used.) I learned about the condiments by watching a man take peanut sauce in one bowl and mix a lethal-looking blend of chiles in oil with soy sauce in another for his table. Our waiter did tell us about the Bud on tap for 99 cents (otherwise the information is available only on a sign on the wall written in Chinese).

Don't dismiss the cafeteria-style prepared-food line. Among the over-cooked chow mein and soggy stews are treasures such as fat sushi rolls wrapped in smoked salmon, and warm mussels topped with a mayonnaise and flying-fish roe sauce.

At the raw ingredients bar, you may discover that Seafood Hot Pot Buffet is something of a misnomer. Among the fantastic panorama of ingredients is just about every sort of protein. The lavish display is filled with not just fish and shellfish, but chicken, meat, meatballs, gluten and tofu in various guises. Some meats are marinated; others, frozen and shaved wafer-thin, stand in pink curls.

Another table holds lush heaps of greens, including baby mustard and spinach. A small, easy-to-miss refrigerated cabinet holds several kinds of noodles, vegetarian products and two kinds of pot stickers. These are best cooked after other ingredients have flavored the broth in your hot pot.

Dessert? Of course. Fresh fruit, gelatin and a do-it-yourself Chinese sundae of ice garnished with sweetened beans, jellies and, if you like, condensed milk or syrup.

The couples, huge family groups and packs of Asian teens who frequent the restaurant for its bargain meals don't seem to mind taking a number for a table (aside from peak weekend hours, the wait isn't usually long). Children under 4 feet high--parents will surely be glad to hear--pay half price.

Making a good meal here takes a certain amount of ingenuity, which some may find lots of work. Others will think it's fun.

* Seafood Hot Pot Buffet, 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 212, San Gabriel Square, San Gabriel, (626) 289-2899. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. Beer and wine. Visa and MasterCard. Parking lot. Lunch buffet, $5.99; dinner buffet, $9.99 ($10.99, weekends and holidays).

* What to get: Hot Pot.

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