A new hot pot buffet is giving Tampa Palms diners a reason to cook their own meals.
Sharon Wang and her husband Charlie — who've been in the restaurant business for nearly 20 years and owned Fushia Asian Bistro for 12 — operated a hot pot restaurant at 15315 Amberly Drive, connected to their Sichuan bistro, a few years back. As the hot pot grew in popularity, however, it was difficult to keep up with demand.
These meals are designed to take a little more time, after all. Traditionally, a Chinese hot pot, literally a simmering pot of broth, is a communal experience between family or friends. An assortment of foods are cooked in a big pot at the center of the table, then eaten with a dipping sauce. According to Sharon, they had their cook preparing each diner's broth, ingredient selection, and sauce; it got to be too much.
"'How do we solve this conflict for these two restaurants?'" she says they asked each other. "So that's why we had the idea to create a buffet."
At first, the owners were hesitant about going all in with their own buffet. But they waited a while, checked out buffet restaurants in New York, California and Las Vegas, saved up to purchase plates, coolers and other necessities, then dove in. About two months ago, Fushia Hot Pot Buffet launched in their original hot pot's location, featuring everything from seafood and dumplings to meat and veggies that guests cook at the table themselves.
The all-you-can-eat hot pot buffet is just as interactive as a classic-style hot pot, only tablemates don't have to share the same pot — they get to customize their own.
Sharon says hot pots are big in food destinations such as New York, where the couple lived before moving to Tampa Palms years ago. Here? Not so much.
"[This is] authentic, really traditional Chinese. It's very, very popular around Asia, like in Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea. People, every time they have family or friends over, that's the big thing. They take it together, so people sit around and eat together," Sharon says.
Unlimited for $25.99, which includes a drink and dessert, Fushia's hot pot isn't your typical sneeze-guarded assembly of refrigerated and steaming buffet tables.
A wall of tall coolers stows a wealth of self-serve ingredients — udon noodle, fresh shrimp, sweet sausage and bok choy, to name a few. There are a dozen-plus sauces (think Fushia spicy chili and Chinese barbecue) to mix and match during the meal, plus accoutrements like garlic and cilantro. And the dining room tables, of course, are outfitted with easy-to-use burners.
Here's how it works: Sit. Order a house-made broth (think mixed mushroom and spicy butter). Wait for your pot of broth to arrive, or grab a bowl and peruse the buffet's sauce station and cold dishes, meant to be eaten before the broth comes to boil. Once the broth is on the burner, head back to the buffet to gather the main ingredients for your hot pot (labels in English and Chinese identify what's what).
It's time to start adding food — some, not all at once — to the pot when your broth is boiling. Sharon suggests tossing in the items that take the longest to cook first; these are foods like seaweed, sweet potato and taro.
"How do you know when it's ready or not?" Sharon asks. "For example, the taro and the sweet potato, you stick your chopstick inside. If it's soft enough, that means it's ready."
Basically, guests cook as they go. If they scoop out one helping of prepared food onto their plates, they should incorporate more ingredients to the simmering pot so they'll be ready by the time they're finished eating. Everything's meant to be enjoyed hot, and dunked directly in sauce.
"When people come down here, the first things we let them know are the rules. We tell them you can eat whatever you want. But there's one thing: You cannot waste it," she says. "If [what's leftover is] over 100 grams, we start charging money on it because everything is very expensive for us to purchase. You can eat. It's a buffet, all you can eat, but not for you to waste."
Through Fushia Hot Pot Buffet, the Wangs aim to attract more American diners, an audience that's driven them to offer such a build-your-own experience. Folks with double-dipping paranoia, an aversion to spicy fare or food allergies needn't worry.
"For me, I think this is a new version of the Chinese food because it's healthy, there's no grease, all these kind of things," Sharon says. "I've been asking all my customers who come down here if they like that everybody has their own pot, and they like it. They can make it salty, light, spicy or not spicy — whichever they want."