Perhaps the best thing about getting hot pot at Hai Di Lao is that it needn't be a communal experience.
The term “hot pot” refers to a style of dining wherein a big container of boiling liquid is placed on the table, and eaters can drop in proteins and vegetables at their leisure. Due to its nature, the type of boiling liquid often has to be decided by committee, which means hot pot is often too spicy for some and not spicy enough for others.
But at Hai Di Lao, the extremely popular mainland China restaurant that chose Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia for its flagship U.S. location, most of the tables are outfitted with individual pots in front of every chair.
Ordering at Hai Di Lao takes some getting used to. The very kind servers will walk you through it, but here's a primer: They'll hand you an iPad. On that iPad, choose your broths. That order will be sent to the kitchen. Then, choose your ingredients. Those orders are sent to different kitchens: apparently, one for seafood and one for meats and vegetables. At this point you'll be given aprons to wear during your meal. It's cheesy. Embrace it. Then head over to the salad-and-sauce bar, where you can fill up plates with edamame, potato salad (it's like cold mashed potatoes and it's great) and other cold vegetables, and create a dipping sauce. There is no guidance here, so just go for it. (But if you ordered red meat, be sure to include black vinegar in your concoction.)
Platters will start arriving at your table now. I recommend the combo platter, which happens to be a (meat-loving) nutritionist's dream, but more importantly is delicious: lamb or beef, a handful of noodles, and a ton of diverse and multihued vegetables from land and sea. If you're going big, get the seafood combo too. It comes with clams, scallops, fish, something I couldn't identify but might have been snail, and a generous serving of shrimp.
Though it is located in a mall, Hai Di Lao is something of a special-occasion restaurant. (While we're on the topic, let's all finally get it out of our heads that Asian food is supposed to be cheap.) It gets especially pricey if you order prime beef or à la carte noodles, which come with a show: A “noodle dancer” will come to your table and fling long circles of noodles in the air before cutting them into your pot.
But, it's one stop for dinner and a show.
Westfield Santa Anita, 400 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. (626) 445-7232, haidilao.us.