You’ll know you’ve arrived at I Luv Hot Pot when you see the Eiffel Tower replica out front. Strung with Christmas lights and reaching skyward, the Parisian mini-monument dominates the parking lot of a Duluth strip mall that also boasts a 24-hour Vietnamese noodle parlor called I Luv Pho and a clutter of Asian shops and restaurants.
A poor man’s Vegas, open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, I Luv Hot Pot is a place of low prices and high kitsch. The room makes you feel as if you’ve entered a blue and purple hall of mirrors with an explosion of light fixtures: A giant Versailles-worthy chandelier dangles over a massive, buffet-style condiment station. Space-age lanterns drip from the ceiling. Illuminated glass teapots float magically over booths and bar.
Did we mention that there is an adjoining bowling alley-cocktail bar called I Luv Bowling? Or that conveyor belts loop through the hot-pot restaurant carrying bowls filled with mushrooms, corn, tofu, napa cabbage, spinach, shredded cooked chicken, raw eggs, beef and seafood, fish balls, meat balls, glass noodles, rice noodles, ramen noodles, crinkly fried tofu skins, lime-green gelatin desserts and cubes of watermelon? Plus a few ready-to-eat Vietnamese classics like green-papaya salad and shrimp paste molded around a sugar-cane skewer?
Still, the Willy Wonka excess of quick-moving soup fixings can understandably short-circuit the brains of first-timers. And if you arrive here on a chaotic Saturday night, you may have to wait in line a few minutes before you can slurp. On such frenetic occasions, service can be a bit dicey — to put it gently. You may have to flag down a server when you need something — besides water. Then your request for a cold one might get lost in the rush for hot liquid.
The conveyor-belt system rather mirrors Atlanta’s own Spaghetti Junction. Every once in a while, a dish will jump track, and you’ll see employees rush to realign bowls and lids; snap buckled-up pieces of the hot-pot highway back into place; or clean up a pile of enoki or squash that has suddenly tumbled to the floor. A comedy tonight.
The staff doesn’t seem all that inclined to coach puzzled diners on the format. So I’ll give it a shot.
First you order a broth. There are two price points: basic beef, chicken, kimchi, vegetarian and Thai pots cost $3; fancier concoctions such as oxtail, goat, chicken-lemongrass, fish cake, beef tripe with green pepper, and so on range from $8 to $10. Once your soup arrives, you may need to adjust the burner: You probably want to start at level 4 or 5 to get everything bubbling — think of the witches’ cauldron in “Macbeth.” Then dial down to 1 or 2 so you don’t scald your mouth and spoil the whole experience. The worst!
Then you’re on your own, kiddo. Or so I told a friend who seemed a little flummoxed on that crazy Saturday night. (Wait, did she did dump a green-papaya salad into her lemongrass-chicken broth? Sure did. And loved it.)
So far, I’ve discerned at least two approaches to navigating the speedy belt and building your stew. Let everybody pick and choose items at random, and share. Or think about what might work well with your broth, and keep that in mind as you compose your dish. Want to fashion your oxtail stock like a pho? Then grab some sliced raw beef, and head to the condiment buffet for cilantro, sliced jalapeños, fiery red chile sauce and lime wedges.
Maybe your Thai bowl, which is scented with lovely lime leaves, needs some shredded chicken and shrimp. Or why not salmon? Anything goes at this Chinese-meets-Vietnamese-meets-Korean-meets-Thai establishment.
In general, I very much liked the flavorful broths, even before embellishing. My only quibble was that the oxtail was so full of actual oxtail that it didn’t leave much room for accouterments. You get bottomless refills on the broth, so if you are really famished, you can start all over again: All veggies, perhaps. Or put an egg on it.
The moment of reckoning comes when our server tallies up the check, dim sum style. Prices are color coded by dish, and clearly marked on the laminated menu, so there shouldn’t be any surprises. What shocked me was how cheap our dinner of three turned out to be: $60 sans tip but including four beers.
That leaves enough for a game of 10 pins next door.
What’s not to luv?
I Luv Hot Pot
4 p.m.-midnight Sundays-Thursdays; 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 4500 Satellite Blvd., Suite 1240 A, Duluth. 1-888-749-6089, facebook.com/iluvhotpot/.
Recommended: Beef broth, Thai broth, chicken-lemongrass broth.