A Tale of Two Hot Pots
Or how Austin's best meal is in your own kitchen
The image above is from the anime Princess Jellyfish. It’s about an all-women boarding house in Tokyo (and obsession and gender and fashion and more). In this particular scene from the end of episode 2, they are enjoying sukiyaki, a Japanese-style hot pot where a shared pot is used to cook bitefuls of meat and vegetables. Many Princess Jellyfish episodes use sukiyaki or similar communal meals like shabu shabu to provide emotional closure. The boarders may have argued earlier, or had a stressful conflict, but by the end they have come together in the intimate act of sharing food. The show often treats the entire process—from grocery shopping to washing dishes—as all part of the total hot pot experience that connects the characters. When you see them heading to the market, you know that the narrative tension will eventually be resolved and the characters will be safe.
It’s January 2020 in Austin, TX and both the local alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle, and Austin Eater named a hot pot restaurant the best restaurant in Austin for 2019. DipDipDip Tatsu-ya opened in June and is the creation of the same clever restauranteurs who brought us the noteable Ramen Tatsu-ya, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, etc. etc. Their empire is constantly expanding. As a lover of Japanese food, I’m a fan. Enough of a fan that I signed myself up for notifications from RESY since I couldn’t get a table outright, then lived through two weeks of getting an email every few hours telling me to check the website, only to see once again that no tables were available. I knew it would be worth it, and it was, but—well, I’ll get to that.
I am using photos from the DipDipDip Instagram here because the restaurant subtly discourages phone use inside, and I respect that. If you are not going to give yourself to the experience that they are trying to build for you, don’t go. What they are selling is primarily that very curated experience.
The restaurant is dark with appropriate task lighting at each of its booths, small tables with tall dividers between them to give you the impression of the private dining areas that are much more common in Japan than the US. It’s still an illusion—you can hear the couple at the next booth over discussing The Bachelor—but it’s just enough to focus you on your individual meal. The layout of the table creates deliberate focal points as well. Every small bowl or utensil has a designated spot, and there’s not room for much else so your phone and other items get tucked away in a cubby under your chair. Unlike traditional shabu shabu, you have your own pot. Every other morsel you get is also just for you, with the exception of a complimentary box of veggies that is tucked in between your pot and your date’s. You can still share items, letting your partner tweeze delicate sheets of meat from your tray, but everything is served in a single-serving size. If you want, you and your companion can customize your meals so that you are eating two entirely different meals.
Servers swoop in and out just when needed to replenish a drink or turn down your burner or explain a dish. The meat, they say, is thin enough to cook in just a few seconds of stirring in the pot, using a technique, to quote the servers, “we call ‘swish swish.’” What they don’t tell you is that it’s the standard method of cooking in shabu shabu. “Shabu” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of meat being twirled in broth, and a thin strip of wagyu should cook in the time it takes for you to say “shabu shabu shabu.” DipDipDip is merely translating this experience for Americans, but the sheer quality of their translation makes it seem like a revelation.
This delicious private-public experience runs around $100 a person. And it’s a far cry from what we see in Princess Jellyfish. I could see an engagement occuring at DipDipDip—picture a server pushing the seafood cart to your table and there’s a big diamond shining on a wooden tray between the scallops and the oysters. What I can’t imagine is a birthday dinner or a “let’s make up from a fight” catharsis meal. The max table size is 4 and you have to plan months in advance. A table for four doesn’t cut it in my friend groups, where we won’t even go see a movie with less than three people.
But maybe we are the exception. Maybe DipDipDip is being celebrated precisely because it so successfully reinterprets a hot pot for our atomized society. You can enjoy the elements of a hot pot now without the mythological horror of double-dipping. I see the appeal, but I think we should be pushing in the other direction, learning to be better neighbors, prioritizing sharing, finding inexpensive ways to create community. That’s the spirit of hot pot as shown in Princess Jellyfish. When my friends and I have a hot pot, no one person is cooking; we are sharing the labor. We are having the intimate experience of eating out of the same bowl. We are combining our interests to create a positive outcome for all of us.
And, on a practical level, hot pot is a simple, “I’m too lazy to actually cook” dish that can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. I’ll guide you through it.
Take a short bike ride down Justin Lane from DipDipDip to 99 Ranch. You can get an electric hot pot there for $50, a one-time expense. The basic broth at DipDipDip is a standard kombu dashi, so grab an inexhaustible amount of the seaweed for $1. When the time comes, you’ll let a piece simmer for 30 minutes before removing it and beginning your meal. 99 Ranch has a wall of tofu to choose from and a wall of noodles and freezer case of fish balls and two freezer aisles of dumplings. Grab whatever appeals to you. A gallon-sized bag of bok choy is around $1, but go nuts and get whatever vegetables are in season and try a mushroom you’ve never tried before. I recommend thinly sliced sweet potato at least once. Then the meat. Trays and trays of wagyu and pork belly, all pre-sliced into strips as delicate as the layers of a croissant. With all of the other stuff that you have, you will need less than a tray per person. Lastly you’ll need dips, an acidic one to flavor vegetables and a creamy one to compliment meat. You can buy the two most common dips, ponzu sauce and sesame sauce (goma dare), premade or make them yourself with simple Internet recipes. If you choose to make them, other than steaming rice, that will be the extent of the cooking that you do. Preparing a shabu shabu is just a matter of putting all of the ingredients on the table and letting community happen.