Considering how popular Vietnamese food is in San Jose, it’s surprising that there are only a handful of places in the area that serve Vietnamese style hot pot soups. Of those that exist, some even feature it prominently. Lau Hai San, which opened six months ago in southern downtown San Jose, is one such place. The owner explained to me that hot pot soups are their flagship dish. I found this fact obscured by an enormous menu that had nearly every kind of Vietnamese food on it. Then again, Lau, which I later came to learn, is the Vietnamese word for hot pot soup, so maybe it was more obvious than I thought.

Hot pot soups are not exclusive to Vietnam; they are in fact found all over Eastern Asia, particularly China. It’s a sort of build your-own-soup meal. A metal pot, which is attached to a portable oven, comes filled with broth and diced veggies. Raw meat and uncooked veggies are served on the side. Diners place the meat and vegetables into the boiling pot at their discretion, deciding when it’s cooked long enough and ready to eat.

The meat at Lau Hai San was not served on a separate plate, but rather a on the edge of the pot, so all that needs doing is for diners to simply drop the pieces of meat into the boiling broth below. Leeks, cabbages, herbs and noodles are all served on separate plates.

I ordered Lau Hai San’s most popular hot pot soup, the Spicy Thai Seafood. It comes with a vast assortment of raw seafood: Mussels, shrimp, squid, fish balls (with fish eggs inside), clams, lobster and more, and also includes tofu and mushrooms. It is gorgeous. It’s worth getting a nice eyeful before cooking it all.

The whole meal reminds me of fondue, only in the sense that the hot pot experience is a communal one. This is not a dish to eat alone. Even the small, which I ordered for $23.50, could have easily served three people. Lau Hai San also serves mediums ($26.50) and larges ($39.50). Like fondue, hot pot allows for an interactive, leisurely long meal since it’s all cooked and eaten a little at a time.

The spicy Thai broth wasn’t nearly as hot as I expected. It had a tangy, sour flavor which nicely accompanied the noodles and seafood.

Before the soup, I ordered the Beef in Spicy Tamarind Sauce for $12.95, which is another cook-yourself-at-your-table item, though not a soup. The owner placed a small oven on my table that had a dish on top of it with the spicy tamarind sauce in it, cooking. He then placed a plate of raw beef and onions next to it. I cooked a little bit of the beef at a time and scooped some beef and sauce up with large sesame crackers. The whole dish was extremely flavorful.

Lau Hai San
2597 Senter Road, San Jose. 408.938.0650