Malubianbian, a Sichuan restaurant with a cult following in China, is introducing a different kind of hot pot to Angelenos: skewer-style hot pot. Opened in November 2019, the restaurant already draws average waits of two hours.
The biggest trend in SGV last year was Sichuan ma la (numbing spice) hot pot restaurants. Because there are already so many styles of Chinese hot pot in the San Gabriel Valley, from dry pot to Beijing to Cantonese to Taiwanese to Chongqing, the region has become ground zero for Chinese brands looking to open their first U.S. locations. The latest trend is known as chuan chuan huo or skewer-style hot pot.
Chuan chuan hotpot restaurants are very popular with China’s younger generation since they evolved from street food stalls. Malubianbian, pronounced (mah-lou-bee-yan-bee-yan), is the most famous of the recent slate of Chinese chains coming to the U.S. Malubianbian, which translates to “side of the road”, is a skewer hot pot restaurant chain that was started just three years ago. The business now has more than 1,000 restaurants globally that target a younger demographic with focused front-of-house service, hip music, and nostalgic decor.
Arthur Tang is the North American partner for not only Malubianbian, but a number of famous mainland Chinese restaurants that are expanding to the U.S. He expects four more Malubianbian locations to open in Southern California in the near future, including Irvine, Arcadia, Koreatown, and Downtown LA’s Arts District.
”One of our differentiating factors is that our food, broth, and dipping sauce is one hundred percent the authentic flavor of Chengdu. Unlike other hot pot restaurants that have made their way to the U.S., we have not altered or provided localized versions of our food. If you have Malubianbian in California, it will taste exactly the same and offer exactly the same options as if you were in any of our locations around the world,” says Tang.
Malubianbian restaurants are decorated in a style that takes diners back to China in the 1980s. The decor pays tribute to the mom and pop street stalls and city life in Chengdu, which inspired this style of hot pot.
”We only serve a spicy-flavored soup base. Even our mild is spicy for the average person not from Chengdu,” says Tang.
Diners first choose their desired broth: vegetarian, mild (classic), or traditional (spicy). From there, it becomes a self-service experience. Diners grab a basket and make their way over to the large refrigerator doors to pick out their desired skewer meats and veggies. They can also order specialty side dishes off the menu. Any items that would be at a standard SGV hot pot restaurant will also be available, such as lamb, beef, corn, tofu, mushrooms, okra wrapped in beef, in addition to more adventurous items like offal and pig’s brain. At the end of the meal, the waiters tally up the number of sticks, drinks ordered, broth base, and specialty plates for the final tab.
Unlike traditional hot pot restaurants, diners place their ingredients on the skewers instead of using chopsticks, which many tout as being more hygienic for shared hot pots. It also allows for diners to try more dishes since they can pick a single skewer of a desired ingredient instead of having to order a full plate of each. Skewers also mean that diners do not have to touch any raw meat with their chopsticks.
Hot pot restaurants usually place emphasis on an ingredient bar where diners can mix a sauce of their liking. Malubianbian prepares a traditional Sichuan-style dipping sauce using dry powder. Diners are given a powder mix made of minced chili and chopped peanut bits. The servers will then add in a spoonful of the broth to the minced chili and peanut to create their own sauce.The restaurant’s signature broth contains 19 different herbs, adding in additional chili, onions, and sesame oil to the already flavor-packed soup.
Fans of hot pot in Chengdu might notice that broth bases and sauces just aren’t as spicy as they are in China, a detail that MLBB (as the restaurant is abbreviated) aims to combat.
“Since we’ve opened two months ago, I’ve have a lot of local Chengdunese people who have visited from near and far, even flying from China, that have come here and they say it feels and tastes exactly like home. I am committed to sharing and educating others about real Chinese food, not Americanized Chinese food. Even when we open in the Arts District in the future, the food will be exactly the same. It will be exactly as it is in Chengdu.” Even though this location is only open for dinner at the moment, Tang also says that it will open up for lunch soon.
Malubianbian used to command six hour lines in China until it began opening more locations. Here in California, only the Rowland Heights branch in California is a corporate-owned location. There is another Malubianbian restaurant with the same name in San Gabriel that is under different management, and could have its franchise revoked because it allegedly hasn’t been keeping up to corporate standards.
“Food is without borders. I don’t want to just stay in Chinese areas, which is why the Arts District will be coming soon. Food is all about cross cultural exchanges and I hope to do that with Malubianbian,” says Tang.
Malubianbian is open from 5 p.m. to midnight, Monday to Friday, and from noon to midnight on weekends.