Citrus Heights, CA 95621
Good for: tasty, flavorful soups
Notable dishes: hotpot, khao poon
Although Hotpot Express is located in the predominantly white suburb of Citrus Heights (about 80 percent white, according to the 2010 census), its food seems more like something one would find in the more ethnically diverse south Sacramento area. Or maybe even in a large city somewhere in Laos (it boasts a small menu with five Laotian entrees).
Rather than ordering from the “entree” section of the menu on a recent weeknight, however, most diners opted for hotpot, a DIY tabletop cooking option during which patrons dip raw meats and veggies into a small pot of simmering stew to cook them. Unlike many hotpot places in Sacramento (like the two Japanese hotpot spots in Midtown: Shabu Japanese Fondue and Heat Shabu Baru), here the ingredients sit in four wide refrigerators featuring shelves stocked with veggies, meats, noodles and more—and diners are welcomed to open them up and grab everything buffet style.
Before picking out our favorite hotpot ingredients, we started with a few things from the “entree” page including a “Lao-style” papaya salad (featuring crunchy crab bits) and kalunfen—our waiter warned us against the kalunfen, as it’s sort of like egg-flavored Jell-O in a cold, red broth. He was right. A side of fermented bean paste helped mask the incredibly potent egg flavor, but this dish is probably best left to people who are already used to it—not just because of its unusual texture, but also because of the striking broth color and egg flavor. Kudos to Hotpot Express for challenging Sacramento’s palates; this is the only restaurant in town we’ve encountered so far serving kalunfen.
The papaya salad was also flavorful and tasty with copious amounts of Thai chilies and fermented fish paste balancing out against the flavor of lime juice on crunchy papaya. Luckily, we’d already ordered some sweet Thai teas to help wash both dishes down.
We also ordered a pot of “house special” broth for hotpot-style dining, which came with two little plates of dipping sauces on the side—one was a soy-based sauce, and another tasted like a creamy satay sauce. Later, we grabbed about a dozen plates full of food from the fridge (each color plate represents a different price—$2.95 for green, $3.95 for orange and $4.95 for yellow) filled with the likes of quail eggs, bok choy, sliced beef, enoki mushrooms, egg noodles, Napa cabbage, fish balls and beef meatballs.
After it started boiling, we sampled the broth, which featured a complex aroma of lemongrass, galangal, garlic, coconut milk and several other herbs we couldn’t quite figure out. Whatever they were, the soup tasted dynamic and delicious—and once we dumped all our ingredients in, the soup’s flavors infused everything we ate.
It’s kind of hard to review food that you cook yourself, but ingredient-wise, our favorites were the quail eggs (which boast delicious, creamy yolks), fish balls (filled with chewy fish roe) and earthy enoki mushrooms. The dipping sauces weren’t quite as spicy as we might have liked, but that was easily fixed by adding some sriracha.
On another visit, we sampled some more soups: bowls of pho and khao poon from the aforementioned small menu of entrees. The pho seemed like the Laotian take on the popular Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It was still beefy, but with a really light broth that tasted sweeter than most spots in Sac’s Little Saigon might serve—different, but still good. On the other hand, the khao poon was great: tender shredded chicken and soft rice noodles sitting in a semisweet curry sauce, with crunchy bamboo shoots and cabbage on top.
Our server—who was also the host, busser and cashier—went out of his way to explain dishes, which is helpful for people who don’t regularly eat Lao food. Overall, this was a great spot for people who enjoy flavorful hotpot, noodle soup and Lao food. Just be prepared to eat lots of soup.