Houston Hot Pot Restaurant Sports Both a Conveyor Belt & a Meat Train

Chiba Hot Pot train

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I remember years ago when I first watched a video about sushi conveyor belt restaurants in Japan and desperately wanting to try one. It looked like such a fun experience, and a model of efficiency. No need to look at a menu and place an order — just grab what was appealing right off the belt before it trundled out of reach. At the time, conveyor belt restaurants hadn’t come to the United States yet. These days, Kura Revolving Sushi Bar has 46 restaurants in this country, and 16 more on the way. However, did you know there’s a conveyor belt restaurant for hot pot, too, and it’s in northwest Houston? My son and his roommate introduced me to Chiba Hot Pot at 12426 FM 1960, and we had a really fun meal. (Going to dinner with two strapping young men is a great way to get to try many dishes, too.)  

Hot pot with spicy broth at Chiba Hot Pot in northwest Houston
Hot pot with spicy broth at Chiba Hot Pot in northwest Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

At the start of the meal, Chiba Hot Pot works about the same as any other hot pot restaurant, except instead of a big bowl of cooking broth to share, everyone in your group gets a cute, lidded crock all to themselves. A server will take your order for your choice of broth, place it on a burner in front of you and that’s what you’ll cook various raw vegetables, starches and meats in for the duration. (Minding the heat level of the broth by adjusting the burner control knob is extremely important, as it can get boiling-hot in no time.) The choices are spicy, tomato, mushroom, chicken or tom yam kung, a Thai-style hot and sour broth with lemongrass, galangal and makrut lime leaves. I ordered the spicy; next time, I’ll aim for the tom yam kung. I found the spicy carried excessively bitter baking spice flavors, like perhaps star anise and cinnamon sticks had been left to simmer too long. 

First-time visitors may just want to sit for a bit and take the lay of the land by watching what goes by on the conveyor belt. When it comes to what to cook in your broth, there are dozens of options, and part of a great hot pot meal is choosing complimentary flavors. Properly experiencing Chiba demands more than one visit, as there’s far too much that you won’t get to try, simply because you’ll run out of room. There are numerous types of mushrooms, such as shitake and enoki, fresh vegetables, such as broccoli and carrots, starches, including a few types of noodles and taro, and non-raw-meat proteins, including quail eggs, a personal favorite. (An list of ingredients is online; select any of the broth flavors to take a look.) 

pork belly and beef at Chiba Hot Pot in northwest Houston
Wafer-thin slices of pork belly and beef at Chiba Hot Pot in northwest Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

The conveyor belt, which winds through the entire restaurant, is not the only automated food delivery mechanism. One of the most charming aspects of Chiba is the sleek monorail that glides on a track above the conveyor belt, and it’s how both cooked and thinly sliced, raw meats are delivered from the kitchen. For hot meats, we selected cross-cut short rib and sausage (which reminded us of giant-sized Lil’ Smokies). For raw meats to cook in our broths, we picked beef and pork belly, sliced so thinly as to be nearly translucent, which also helped cut down on any sense of excessive fattiness. Chicken is another option, as are three different types of tofu — firm, fried and “skin” (also called yuba and created by boiling soy milk) — which can be found on the conveyor belt. 

The big draw for my young companions, though — and I eagerly adopted their perspective — are the endless dumplings that go sailing by on the conveyor belt. “I eat so many of these, I’m surprised they don’t bill me extra,” said my son’s roommate. Indeed, numerous pork dumplings made it into our piping-hot crocks of broth. 

mini egg custard tarts at Chiba Hot Pot in northwest Houston
Mini egg custard tarts at Chiba Hot Pot in northwest Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

We kept the drinks simple; I sipped hot sake while the young men drank Singha, a Thai lager. There’s a table for both condiments and desserts, including attractive but bland cake squares and more-worthy mini egg custard tarts. When we were finally ready (we needed to go home and gently cradle our poor, over-full bellies), we hailed a server to bring the check. 

Chiba Hot Pot is great fun, and I can imagine that kids would be thrilled by it, too — provided that parents are very watchful and keep little hands away from the burners and broths. Accessing strictly on food alone, there are better hot pot restaurants in Chinatown, but Chiba Hot Pot is worth a few visits. I’m going to keep trying for the perfect combination of broth and ingredients, and just enjoy being immersed in the spectacle of it all. 

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