It doesn't take much to make me happy. Travel, of course, is #1. But traveling needs to be saved up for, planned, and if I'm lucky, occurs a few weeks a year, or every other year. So let's talk about tangible happiness. I've really only got two: books and food. I love it when I glom onto a new author. I love getting so involved in a book that I have to finish right there and then, nevermind that the sun has risen and I have to be up early the next day. Then I scour bookstores to buy up their backlist because waiting for Amazon would just take too long. And then I stay up all night again reading the next book. Well, every once in a while, I glom onto restaurants as well.
Such was the case with Jazz Cat Cafe in Alhambra. How did this restaurant escape my notice before? I drive along Valley Boulevard all the time. After I first saw the array of hot pot flavors on BiggestMenu, I immediately nudged this restaurant to the top of my neverending "to-eat" list. I've eaten here about half a dozen times in the space of a few months, and at one point, three times in one week! Talk about glomming! And no, I haven't tasted all the hot pot flavors yet (Not for lack of trying, mind you.). Is it the individual hot pots that appeal to me? The squash and bok choy and other veggies that makes me feel like I'm eating healthy? The fusion variety of broths from Japanese curry to Korean kimchee to Thai spicy chili? The somewhat trendy and intimate atmosphere? All of the above?
And so it was that on the eve of my birthday, with cousin Q and his brother, who was in town but not free until nearly midnight, that I chose to go here for dinner. I don't always need a menu with 200 choices. Sometimes a restaurant that specializes in one item, with some variations, is just what I need. I know this isn't terribly exciting food, but I've always left with a warm, happy belly. And sometimes, that's all I need.
My first visit occurred several weeks before with another cousin, who really loves hot pots, and her husband and baby. Umm, just a bit of advice, rambunctious babies around open flames are not a good idea. :P
The individual hot pots start at $10.95 for beef, chicken, pork, or lamb. Add four shrimp and it's $12.95. Add two mussels and one scallop and it's $14.95. The veggies are all the same. And you have a choice of regular rice or a Japanese rice ball - wrapped in seaweed and filled with pork floss.
If you've never had Chinese or Taiwanese hot pot before, it's basically flavored broths that you dip meat and veggies into. Japanese hot pot, or shabu shabu, is more likely to be plain water to cook the meat and several different dipping sauces. And of course, there's the Swiss fondue, with cheese.
On my first visit, I ordered the kimchee hot pot. Clockwise from the hot pot, there's Japanese rice, a raw egg to crack into the hot pot, dipping sauce, and a plate of beef, veggies, and that long tube is fish paste.
I lifted the beef so you can see the various veggies, tofu, and vermicelli bean thread noodles.
And my kimchee hot pot merrily bubbling away.
The hot pots use sterno can gel for fire so there's no regulating the heat. Don't be greedy and put everything into the pot at once or else you'll get overboiled veggies and a flame that won't die. Now, you don't have to follow my method, but I've managed to portion my veggies so that it lasts until the flames die out. Wait until the hot pot starts boiling and then put in your veggies. Start with the hardest to cook veggies first such as squash and cabbage. Don't use all your cabbage, basically it serves to lower the temperature of the broth when it starts bubbling. Only add a few veggies at a time. The meat is sliced very thin so it only needs a quick dunking to cook. If the broth is boiling, add some cabbage to tone it down. By judiciously portioning your veggies, you should make it last until the flames die out.
My cousin had chosen the sukiyaki hot pot with chicken. Blech! This is the second time I've had sukiyaki and both times the broth has been way, way too sweet for my taste. My cousin didn't care for it either.
Her husband ordered the Jazz Cat house special, which tasted like Chinese five-spice to me and also looked very much like the Japanese curry hot pot, which had a nice light curry flavor.
My favorite though is the Thai spicy hot pot. It actually looks much redder in person than in the picture. It's got pickled chili paste ie. sambal oelek, slightly spicy, sweet, fish sauce savoriness. While the other broths are fine for dipping, I actually slurp this hot pot as soup. And after trying this flavor with cousin Q and his brother, I went back a few days later with lil' sis because I was craving it again.
Lil' sis ordered the Taiwanese tossed noodles. Tasted like the house special hot pot, in other words, Chinese five-spice flavoring. You can also add various iced and milk tea drinks for $1.95 to $2.50 if you're ordering a hot pot or entree.
As for atmosphere, most of the tables are meant for two people and if you both order hot pots, that takes up the whole table. There are some booths on the other side, and a set of tables that are often pulled together for big groups. Head there for an early dinner and the wait isn't too bad. But any time between 8 to 10 p.m. and it may be upwards of 45 minutes waiting time.
And of course, since it is Jazz Cat Cafe, there's a memo board of various cats. A little freaky, but it did keep my cousin's baby entertained while I played with her so her parents could eat.
2007's birthday eats:
Uzbekistan - Los Angeles (Closed)
Perfectly Sweet - Alhambra
Tagine - Beverly Hills
Sunday Bistro - Alhambra
Elite Restaurant (Dim Sum) - Monterey Park
Who else ate at Jazz Cat Cafe?
Henry Chan's Food Videos filmed his "bubbling cauldron."
December 8, 2008 Update: On a recent visit, Jazz Cat Cafe no longer lets you cook tableside. Everything is cooked in the kitchen and then brought out. There is no longer a Japanese rice option and the egg is hard-boiled. The broth flavors are still good, but the hot pot experience isn't the same. :(
A new location is being built on Valley Boulevard and Del Mar Avenue in San Gabriel. Supposedly, the burning hot pots will be available there.
August 28, 2009 Update: Hot pots are no longer being served at all at this location.
January 21, 2009 Update: This location has closed. See my post Jazz Cat Restaurant - San Gabriel for information on the new location.
Jazz Cat Cafe
640 W. Valley Blvd., Ste. #A
Alhambra, CA 91803
Open Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to midnight
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.