.Mumu Hot Pot Shares Soups with Options Aplenty

Communal dining returns to Bay Street Emeryville

Bay Area chain Mumu Hot Pot recently moved into its fifth location, on the northwest corner of Bay Street Emeryville. Hot-pot dinners aren’t an obvious post-pandemic dining trend or entrepreneurial investment. At the height of Covid closures, restaurants featuring salad bars and buffets were the first to shut their doors to the public. Picking ingredients partially protected by sneeze guards looked like an easy way to inhale invisible malevolent spores.

Shared meals are central to the hot-pot experience. Mumu’s new industrial-sized dining room is designed to accommodate large parties of friends and families. Each table is equipped with at least one built-in hot plate—the booths two—to boil a variety of soup bases.

After ordering, the waitstaff encourages diners to fill small bowls at the sauce bar. From ponzu to plum to sesame and soy, every imaginable dipping sauce is available for maximum spillage alongside diced cilantro, green onions and garlic. At the end of a meal, tables resemble Jackson Pollock paintings—bits of rice, sauce, meat and vegetables are strewn every which way in all directions. It’s definitely a kid-friendly space.

To assemble a hot-pot dinner, the diner must consider a long list of options. The first one is a choice between five soup bases ($7 each). The last is a choice between rice or noodles ($3-5). Everything else on the menu is served chopped, cold and uncooked. Essentially, the kitchen only makes soup.

Servers stop by the tables regularly to see if the hot plate is bringing soup to a boil, to give instructions about cooking times or to turn the temperature down. They provide pairs of tongs to grab bok choy bulbs, mushrooms, tofu and thin strips of protein. Dropping each ingredient into the boil is a chemistry experiment and a witch’s brew, a culinary collision between science and magic.    

The tom yum base tastes like a Thai soup in outline rather than as a carefully rendered recipe. A Sichuan spicy base amps up the heat and stops there with flavoring. Both soups on the boil get the job done, regardless of the dunked ingredient, but they don’t impart much in the way of seasoning. They offer more than a pot of salted water does, but neither base could stand on its own as a full-fledged soup. For additional flavoring, the bottomless sauce bar fills in the blanks. Slices of beef and pork transform into much tastier morsels after they’re coated in a peanut sauce.

Several times throughout the meal, servers stopped by carrying pitchers of the soup bases with offers to refill the bubbling cauldrons. For a table of two the initial serving portion per person is plenty, but after a while the broth turns frothy and muddled. When someone stops by to refresh the soup, accept the offer.

Each order of meat also comes with a massive platter of vegetables, including cabbage, squash, taro and spinach. Vegetarians can order fresh tofu, fried tofu pods, beancurd sticks or fried beancurd rolls. When overcooked, the beancurd rolls quickly lose their shape and fall apart. Nothing takes longer than two to three minutes to cook.    

As the Mumu dining room starts to fill up, a celebratory spirit starts to energize the restaurant. It encompasses a great deal of movement, whether it’s servers checking on their tables, people returning to the sauce bar or the diners themselves actively engaging with food, utensils and the adjacent tables. People are out together cooking, and sharing their meals in a public place. There’s no trace left of the pandemic or its attendant isolation in the busy, crowded room.

In Alameda, another hot-pot restaurant, Bacogai, serves hot pots on a much smaller scale. They’re served directly from the kitchen to each individual table. Kayla Bui’s hot pots taste like they’ve been on the stove stewing and coalescing flavors for hours. And they’re supplemented by Khanh Tran’s inventive appetizers and grill plates. At Bacogai, the menu is curated by the chefs’ personalities and their palates. Mumu’s approach is more formulaic, and generic enough to satisfy anyone who simply delights in the novelty of using a hot pot.

Mumu Hot Pot, open Sun–Fri, 11:30am to 2:30pm and 5–9pm, and Sat, 5–9pm; 5699 Bay St., Emeryville. 510.879.7857. mumuhotpot.net.

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