I know y’all have been waiting for this one. Nine Spices Hot Pot recently opened in Gainesville at 3333 SW 34th Street, and I’ve received so many messages from people about it. This is a Florida chain with 3 other locations throughout the state, with the original location being in Orlando. The concept revolves around Chinese hot pot, similar to a Japanese shabu-shabu, where patrons can cook their food in their own boiling pot of broth at the table. Each seat has its own burner, so it’s not a shared hot pot like the “da bin lo” dinners my Cantonese family had while growing up.
As you are cooking your own food, it is one of those restaurants where your experience may vary wildly depending on your cooking skills and how creative you get with the sauce/condiment station (20+ different types of sauces and condiments). In this way, it’s similar to a Korean BBQ concept (like BeQueHolic) that maybe more familiar to some of you. But instead of cooking Korean BBQ over a grill, your food is being cooked in broth. So if you are one of those people who say “I ain’t paying no restaurant so I can cook my own food!”, you should probably stop reading now.
Before I dive into the food, let me also address two more questions you probably already have. No, this place is not exactly vegetarian friendly as the broths are meat-based, even the ones labeled as “mushroom soup base”, “sour pickle soup base”, and “herbal soup base.” Our waiter explained they are beef and chicken-based broths with various ingredients added. I would also not recommend bringing small children as the hot ceramic cooking plates and stainless steel pots of boiling liquids are set atop a crowded table with limited space. The reason this is a bad idea is self-explanatory.
The all-you-can-eat option is really what the people want at $26.95 a person ($8.95 for kids ages 3-7 and $15.95 for kids 8-10…but…see previous point). At this price, it’s actually reasonable for the amount of food you get, especially if you have a big appetite. It does come with a few caveats as there is a 2 hour dining time limit, a charge of $12.95 per pound for any excessive left-over food, and an automatic charge of 18% gratuity for parties of 6 or more. Oh, and if one person wants the all-you-can-eat option, the whole table has to do it as well. Yep. I know.
There is a tremendous amount of choices available for broths, meats, and veggies. The spicy soup base is generous with the spice levels if you’re into that sort of thing, but I really enjoyed my bone soup base that comes with a big ol’ pork bone submerged in the broth, adding all that collagen rich goodness as it cooks. Meats range from the tame stuff like beef and lamb briskets (recommended), chicken breast, shrimp, clams, squid, and pork belly to the fun tasty organ stuff like tripe, cow stomach, and pork blood. Other available ingredients to cook include a variety of veggies, noodles, and rice. Skip the fried bread stick, which are “Youtiao” aka “Oil-Fried Ghosts” as they’re called in Cantonese. I have no idea why these are an option, as they come out stale and cold so you can make them soggy and gross in soup. They are meant to be served fresh with rice congee or soy milk, and have no business here. But I digress from my Cantonese perplexity.
If you’re not into the all-you-can-eat option and can get your dining mates to agree, there are a la carte options that range from $13.95 to $19.95 depending on your choice of meat, seafood, or veggies. These hot pots include a variety of veggies and noodles.
As for the food itself, it’s your run-of-the-mill Chinese buffet quality ingredients and meats. Nothing particularly special. But where the restaurant shines is in the tremendous amount of customization options and the fun experience. If you’re one of those people who likes choices, experimenting with different combinations, or could just never order anything off the menu as it is; this is your heaven. Not to mention the concept is undeniably unique for the area and just plain fun. I actually really enjoyed myself despite having my reservations. If you want to round up a couple friends, order some beer, mix up some super trick custom sauce boss action, and throw a bunch of meat into bubbling cauldrons, you’ll have a swell time here (but only for 2 hours!).
All this said, I have a couple serious issues with the restaurant that can be easily remedied. For one, a large part of their concept are plates of raw ingredients parading around the restaurant on a metal conveyor belt. It’s similar to how some restaurants in Japan have plates of sushi that rotate around the restaurant for patrons. But unlike the Japanese concepts, the plates here are uncovered. That means plates of raw meat, fish, and veggies make their way around the restaurant inches from diners without any protection. You can see in the photo just how close it comes to my head, and I’ll leave the potential ramifications of this up to your imaginations. I would not recommend going this route, but luckily the restaurant does allow you to order plates of ingredients via your waiter without the use of the conveyor belts. This is the route I went. But this all seems easily remedied by labeled lids on the food so it’s covered and diners can easily identify the item. Judging by their Facebook page, it does look like the original Orlando location has lids for the ingredients. But why not here? We have the technology!
The second issue I have is the lack of dedicated utensils for picking up raw ingredients at your table. Unlike Korean BBQ restaurants that provide dedicated tongs, the only utensils you have are your chopsticks and spoons. We simply requested extra sets of chopsticks dedicated to picking up the raw meats (especially for the raw chicken), but why not just provide tongs to prevent cross-contamination? It’s just another issue that has a trivial solution, but was seemingly overlooked.
In spite of these two points, which I hope they fix, it really is a fun dining experience best enjoyed with friends and other adults. The restaurant is open 7 days a week starting at 11:30 AM until 11 PM on the weekdays and midnight on Saturdays/Sundays. While not without its faults and a concept that’s not for everyone, I have to give them kudos for bringing a new concept to this town that’s prone to the same stuff recycled over and over again. Would I go back? I wouldn’t oppose it if friends wanted to go and I was feeling particularly hungry.