How forgettable can a restaurant be when you aren’t sure whether you’ve already written a review on it or not? That my friends, is HuHot in a nutshell. The “Mongolian BBQ” chain has reached us here in Madison with a lot of fanfare and I’m here to say that while it’s an experience, it’s not necessarily one you’ll be eager to repeat.
My partner and I arrived at the multi-purpose suburban building that houses the new restaurant early on a Friday night. The interior is minimalist mall Asian that falls slightly below PF Changs and slightly above Chin’s Asian Fresh. Clearly, the open kitchen is meant to be the star of the dining room but it is purposely obscured by retaining walls meant to herd the diners into the assembly line. There’s a small bar as well but if you’re not there before six o’clock on most nights, don’t expect to see it as the overflow the place is currently enjoying fills it up quickly.
Once seated we were quickly greeted by our server who must have taken this job after failing to nab the role of the new fast talking FedEx guy. The facts are these, other than a few apps, soups, salads, and desserts you’re pretty much here to choose your own culinary adventure. In the interest of doing a full review we took advantage of a deal including an app, soup or salad, all you can eat BBQ (the norm), and a dessert.
The appetizer we chose was a basket of fried portabella mushrooms. Clearly, these came from a freezer bag but I must compliment HuHot on the quality of the mushrooms themselves. The southwest dipping sauce that accompanied them was less of a hit as it tasted vaguely of mayo gone bad mixed with sweet and sour and a dash of cayenne. The soups were pedestrian but good, the egg drop in particular. With these annoyances out of the way, we went to the star of the show, the BBQ.
I will admit that buffets and cook it yourself places are not usually my favorites but there is certainly something to be said for the experience. As I approached the first station full of frozen proteins and noodles, my eyes were instantly drawn to the woman at the end of the line who had compiled a bowl entirely of shrimp. No veggies, no sauce, just shrimp. Of course, she also had a towering bowl of beef, noodles, and veggies. As I watched her drop off the food for the grill operators, I noticed that she skipped to the end of the line to pick up a completed dish she must have put in minutes earlier. Sure enough, a few minutes later she was lip smacking back to the end to pick up the shrimp (now in plate form) and the noodle dish. This kind of timing is to be admired, praised, and studied. Shrimp woman was not alone, as I noticed many repeat customers working to time their drop off and pick up all while eating in between. In the span of an hour and a half, my partner and I must have seen at least three different couples eat and leave at the table next to us.
Human studies aside, the food itself must be discussed. Sure, the proteins are all frozen and the veggies of middling quality but the sauces HuHot features are flavorful enough to compensate…if you get them right. I enjoyed my spicy Szechuan sauce with chili pepper oil although the jalapenos and wasabi I added might have been spice overkill. My partner enjoyed the curry sauce but again found she made a mistake in her choice of oil. My second go round I tried the peanut sauce, which was certainly the best of the night and my most successful creation. Of course, that brings me back to the problem with places like HuHot. It’s a fun novelty to pick your ingredients and then watch a team of cooks flip and dice the food to your plate, but on the negative, you’re paying to experiment with flavors that might not turn out well in the end. For the same price we paid at HuHot, my partner and I could have eaten at almost any Asian place in town including a couple of Muramoto’s places and had food prepared by experienced chefs.
Our meal ended with more craziness from our rapid speaking server and our dessert. In keeping with the DIY attitude, we had smores that we made ourselves over a sterno flame. It was the best dish of the night because it was the easiest not to screw up on our own.
HuHot, 610 Junction Road, Madison, WI (608) 827-7110