"Do you want ice cream?" our server asked.
The thought of ingesting one more item of food or drink — even a scoop of free ice cream — not only was absurd, it was physically distressing. After two hours inside an all-you-can-eat Chinese hot pot restaurant, all I wanted to do was burn my pants and lay prostrate on the floor for 40 days and 40 nights.
We might have been bursting at the seams, but we couldn't recall having that much fun in a restaurant in ages. (The buy-two-get-one-free beer special didn't hurt.) The spot was Kintaro, in Brooklyn, and it's the only place of its kind in the region. AYCE hot pot is like the WWF version of shabu-shabu, where fanatical diners approach the event like a competitive eating challenge, seeing how much grub they can pack away during the allotted time period.
I prefer to spend my two hours eating a pleasant mix of veggies, seafood, meat and noodles. Kintaro's full-color pictorial menu includes 75 items, all but a few of which can be ordered again and again. The variety is staggering, ranging from everyday add-ins like bean sprouts, broccoli and shrimp to offbeat foods like chicken gizzards, pig liver and beef balls (as in meatballs, silly, not bull testicles).
For $25, diners enjoy unlimited food, which can be ordered all at once or in stages. Items like live lobster plucked from a nearby tank, crab legs and duck feet require an $8 surcharge and can be ordered only once. Also, requesting a split hot pot of two broths will cost you an extra $5, but it's money well spent for a few reasons. Chief among them is having one spicy and one non-spicy choice. Also, vegans and vegetarians might prefer a broth unsullied with the likes of pork stomach. Broth choices include an herbal brew, an umami-rich shacha, a red-slicked Szechuan style, and chicken.
After you place your order, head over to the condiment bar, filled with dozens of items that can be mixed to create customized dipping sauces: a mix of fresh garlic, soy sauce, sesame paste and green onions, say. Or Vietnamese chili garlic paste, fish sauce and sesame oil.
Once the broth is boiling, it's time to add some ingredients. Potatoes, fish balls and quail eggs will require longer cook times than shaved slices of lamb, pork and fatty beef. Mushrooms, turnips, cabbage and tofu might not require long cook times, but they do help flavor the broth when left in. Shell-on shrimp cooks slower than fish filet but not nearly as slow as hard-shelled clams.
Things can get pretty intense at times, with numerous items bubbling away in separate broths. Hot slices of meat are plucked from the brew, dipped in sauce and eaten. Shrimp are peeled and popped into one's mouth. Broccoli florets are rescued from the roiling caldron before they go too squishy. Breaks are made to order more fatty lamb or mussels or enoki mushrooms. Near the end, noodles like udon, rice or instant-style ramen are added to enjoy with some broth.
Scrupulous diners will want to reserve certain utensils for raw foods and others for cooked. Also, make sure that the broth returns to the boil between additions.
For the price of $25.99, a diner instead can order unlimited sushi. The options include not only an expansive selection of sashimi, nigiri, maki and hand rolls, but also classic sushi items like miso soup, edamame, gyoza and tempura. But wait, there's more. These meals also include chicken teriyaki and hibachi-style foods like salmon and steak with fried rice. Owing to the onsite sushi bar, the quality far exceeds that found at a buffet-style sushi setup but naturally falls short of a high-end Japanese restaurant.
At lunch, the AYCE sushi drops to $14.99 and the hot pot to $10.99, but swaps the time limit for a 10-item limit. Our server said that weekends are much busier than our mid-week visit. Diners are not permitted to take surplus food home and in fact will be charged a fee for excessive leftovers.
The large restaurant began life nearly a decade ago as Hong Kong King Buffet, but owner Zhixin Lu decided that its course had run and closed, rebranded and reopened this past fall as Kintaro. Judging by the crowds, the gambit paid off.