A big metal pot of fiery broth bubbled away on our table at China Garden as my dining partner and I dropped sliced meat, vegetables, and tofu into the steaming stock, spiked with enough chiles and Sichuan peppercorns to leave our lips tingling. Between bites, we continued dunking food in the fragrant broth, fishing it out with chopsticks and small strainers.
It’s getting easier to find diverse and interesting Chinese food in Omaha that goes beyond standard Chinese-American dishes. China Garden is among a handful of local spots that offer a separate menu with Sichuanese and other regional Chinese cuisines, including hot pot. I’ve been a fan of the restaurant’s Sichuan gems for a few years but hadn’t tried this dish until a recent visit. Hot pot, in which diners cook food in a shared pot of boiling broth, dates back to ancient China. Variations of it have spread throughout Asia and beyond. Pluck the food out of the broth, dip it in a sauce, eat, and repeat.
China Garden opened in the early 1980s in a small building behind the now-defunct Cinema Center near 84th Street and West Center Road. Owners, chefs, and menu items have changed through the years, and in August 2017, the restaurant moved a block west to a larger space in the Canfield Plaza Shopping Center. Several tables feature built-in burners for hot pots, and there are private rooms for bigger groups. Customers check off whatever they want for the hot pot on a paper menu. Options include a variety of broths, several kinds of meat, poultry, and seafood, plus tofu, noodles, mushrooms, leafy greens, and other veggies.
We stuck with more familiar ingredients—beautifully marbled ribeye sliced paper thin, napa cabbage, daikon radishes, bamboo shoots, and slabs of fresh tofu—but adventurous eaters can try beef tripe and other organ meats. A plate of mussels and crab accompanies each hot pot. While waiting for our food, we mixed small bowls of dipping sauces at the condiment station using ingredients such as sesame paste, Chinese vinegar, garlic, chiles, sugar, scallions, sesame oil, soy sauce, and cilantro. There’s no hard-and-fast rule—anything goes. The restaurant’s well-versed and helpful staff are happy to answer questions and offer suggestions. China Garden’s bar manager, Luke Edson, guided us as we assembled a flavorful and well-balanced dipping sauce that enhanced each bite.
After splitting an appetizer of steamed dumplings, we were ready to dive in. We chose two broths, original and spicy, served in a single pot with a divider in the middle. Tomatoes, jujubes (also known as Chinese red dates), herbs, and spices simmered away in the original broth, a cloudy white liquid with a mild yet complex flavor. Sichuan peppercorns and chiles lent plenty of heat and intensity to the brick-red spicy broth.
Cooking times vary depending on the food. Paper-thin beef needs just a quick swish in the boiling broth, while heartier items, such as root vegetables, can simmer longer. After a while, flavors start to blend and the meal can get monotonous. There’s not much textural variety since everything is boiled. Still, we enjoyed the participatory aspect of the brothy feast, hovering over the bubbling pot, chatting, cooking, eating, deciding what went in, and when to take it out. With hot pot, it’s less about the food and more about the experience.
China Garden also serves individual hot pots with ingredients already assembled, as well as sizzling dry pots that don’t involve broth. Whichever style you choose, these pots are sure to hit the spot.
China Garden’s ownership changed prior to publication of this edition of Omaha Magazine. Chris Jiang is the new owner. Visit chinagardenomaha.com for more information.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.