Smile Politely

A hot pot newbie’s dinner at Cao’s Hot Pot

A variety of sauces at Cao's Hot Pot restaurant.
Kiezha Ferrell

I have to start this off with a disclaimer: I am a hot pot newbie. In fact, being a non-expert, I was worried about my review, but I figured if I was nervous about trying hot pot — even though our family has eaten our way through most Asian restaurants in town — other folks might be, too. So if you are experienced in the ways of hot pot, go gentle on me.

I visited Cao’s Hot Pot on a recent weekend evening, located right off Green Street. It appeared deceptively small, but there was a second floor with additional seating.

The interior of Cao's Hot Pot restaurant.
Kiezha Ferrell

Cao’s was scrupulously clean and well-lit, with lovely Japanese calligraphy artwork on the walls that included the artist’s name and a description. Our server did not speak much English, but she was clearly accustomed to English-only customers and made good use of gestures and important words here and there. She also kindly brought my youngest son a little apple-flavored yogurt drink on the house while she got us settled and showed us the QR code for the menu. (Later, someone from the kitchen brought out little plates with a fried chicken drumette, shoestring fries, and ketchup to each younger child in the restaurant, which I thought was so kind and also a brilliant tactic to keep kids from getting squirrelly.) 

Hot pot requires a very specific kind of table: each one has a cutout with a heating element inside. The hot pots of broth are dropped into the cutout, and the server adjusts the heat to maintain a bubbling simmer. Many of the tables are designed for people to sit on one side and have their food dishes on the other side of the table. Therefore, the pot itself is not centered in the table. This became a challenge as the meal went on, because I have T-rex arms and had to stand up to get my food in the pot. So if dining with more than two people, take a moment to choose a table wisely. 

A hot pot dish with four dividers of different broths.
Kiezha Ferrell

I really didn’t know what to order. I had my three sons with me, so we pooled our very limited knowledge and decided on a four-way broth: herbal cuisine chicken soup, pork bone, tomato, and Thai ($13.95.) The broths were gorgeous to look at, some studded with bright red goji berries and Chinese dates, and others with brilliant red and green peppers. The chicken and pork seemed to have the same cloudy base, but the chicken one had roughly chopped whole chicken pieces in it and the pork one had broccoli and corn. Neither had strong seasoning, and they were not as salty as I expected, either. The tomato was my favorite of the bunch, quite spicy (for me, at least!) but bursting with flavor. The Thai had a kick to it, too, and a strong lemongrass flavor that was a bit overpowering for me, but probably great if you’re a Thai fan.  

Next we had to decide on our actual food. My kids are carnivores, so we chose meatballs, pork belly, and lamb shoulder. In addition, I ordered peeled prawns from the seafood list, and potatoes from the vegetable list, and hot pot noodles and steamed rice for starches.

A condiment bar at Cao's Hot Pot.
Kiezha Ferrell

While we waited for the different plates to arrive, we were directed to the sauce-slash-condiment bar. Here we could make our own dipping sauce, grab familiar condiments like ketchup, and even some little extras like mandarin oranges. This was a little intimidating for my kids, who were not used to making their own sauces, but they got into it once they realized they recognized a lot of the ingredients offered, which were thankfully labeled. Our favorite ended up being soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, green onion, and chili crisp. 

A sauce at Cao's Hot Pot restaurant.
Kiezha Ferrell

Once we settled back at our table, the servers began bringing out the food, starting with the meats. 

Three frozen meatballs for hot pot.
Kiezha Ferrell

The meatballs ($5 for 5) took the longest, at five minutes, to cook. The savory, bottle-cap sized bites were clearly hand-rolled and the perfect size to eat in one mouthful. While I expected the meatballs to be heavily seasoned, the flavor profile was quite neutral, and they cooked up wonderfully tender. The rest of the meat, cut frozen for nearly paper-thin slices, was presented on trays.

Ribeye or hot pot.
Kiezha Ferrell

My favorite of the meats was the lamb shoulder ($12.95). It had a stronger flavor and was sliced a little thicker, making for a more substantial bite.

Pork belly slices for hot pot.
Kiezha Ferrell

The pork belly ($7.95) was a disappointment to me, but through no fault of the restaurant. I discovered that what I love most about pork belly is the caramelization of the fat and seasoning, and that can’t happen when it’s cooking via broth.

Shrimp uncooked and plated on a white rectangular tray.
Kiezha Ferrell

I ordered the peeled prawns ($10.95) just for myself, and they were large, with sweet, firm flesh. This was reminiscent of a DIY shrimp boil, and I think overall seafood lends itself to hot pot, both because it often does not need much seasoning nor benefit from browning. 

Potato sliced for hot pot on ice.
Kiezha Ferrell

The potatoes ($4.95) were nice to simply drop in the pot for a few minutes while we were busy with other things. They took on the subtle flavor of the broth and were fun to dip in the various sauces.  

Noodles for hot pot.
Kiezha Ferrell

The big hit from my kids’ perspectives were the hot pot noodles ($3.95). They all wanted more. These were fresh, not dried, and cooked in three or four minutes, taking on light seasoning from the broth and soaking up any sauce we put on them.

A bowl of white rice
Kiezha Ferrell

Overall, our family really enjoyed this experience and would happily return to Cao’s. I’d like to take a more experienced hot-potter with me to make sure I try the must-haves. Their menu is vast and includes a lot of non-Western items that I had never tried and a few I didn’t recognize at all. One final note: the tip is included in the bill, but the point-of-sale system will also prompt for a tip. They do not expect a second tip, but if you don’t look carefully at the receipt, you might not realize it’s already included.

Cao’s Hot Pot
608 S Sixth St
Champaign
M-Th 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
F-Su 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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