When Anthony Zhao decided to open a hot pot restaurant a year ago, he had in mind “something novel and special.” A chef he hired recommended fresh beef hot pot, a specialty from his hometown in Guangdong Province.
“Unlike frozen beef, where ice crystals break down meat fibers, fresh beef is chewy and a bit sweet,” Zhao told Shanghai Daily. “At the same time, a clear broth captures all the essence of the beef.”
Today, fresh beef hot pot has entered the realm of culinary favorites in Shanghai, adding a refreshing change from traditional Sichuan spicy hot pot and the Cantonese-style version. A number of restaurants, including Zhao’s Holy Cow, have opened outlets to cater to the trend. Popular ones like Jiu Niu Er Lu consume the meat of up to three cows a day.
Fresh beef hot pot originated in Chaoshan, a southern Chinese area that combines the cities of Shantou, Chaozhou and Jieyang. The dish exemplifies the philosophy of local cuisine — namely to preserve to original flavors of the ingredients.
The dish relies on freshly slaughtered cattle, with the meat delivered to restaurants within four hours, Shu Qiao, a Shanghai food critic, wrote in Life Week magazine in 2012.
At one time, that freshness was hard to find outside of Chaoshan. No longer.
“To find the freshest beef, we changed meat supplies at least five times,” Zhao said. “The beef we now use comes from Dalian in northeastern China and from Jiashan in Zhejiang Province.”
Cattle slaughtered early in the morning arrive at his restaurant by noon, he said.
Beef served at Holy Cow comes from cows between the ages of 6 and 7, with heifers preferred for the best taste.
“Not too tender, not too tough,” said the restaurant chef, who has worked for over a decade as a Western cuisine chef at the Shanghai Portman Ritz-Carlton and Three on the Bund before launching his own restaurants.
Once meat slabs arrive in the kitchen, they are divided into cuts and then sliced into 2-centimeter pieces by skilled butchers using a method Zhao calls the “butterfly cut.” “It is basically a double-cut knife skill without cutting off the meat in between,” he explained.
Beef cuts used in Chaoshan hot pot are quite different from Western-style steaks. No more than 40 percent of a slaughtered cow is used in the hotpot. Among those popular cuts are the fatty feipian, a flank part, and the chewy wuhuajian, the hind shank with part of the round.
Cuts in more limited supply include diaolong, or the lean meat along the sides, which is similar to rib eye or sirloin. The best diaolong are diaolongbang — two parts shaped like a pair of lobster’s antennas, according to Zheng Yuhui, a food critic based in Shantou who writes a blog on Chaoshan beef hot pot.
“Each slice of diaolongbang weighs only about 50 grams,” he wrote.
Another sought-after cut is boren, the slightly bulged part on the back of a cow’s neck. It is chewy, with abundant marbling.
“The quality meat is not that which melts on the tongue, but that which subtly bounces off the teeth,” Shu noted in her review.
The broth of Chaoshan beef hot pot has evolved from a salty one seasoned with satay sauce into a clear consommé stewed with white turnips, Zhang Xinmin, deputy director of Shantou’s food academy, told Shanghai Daily.
The satay sauce is now relegated as a side dish for beef hot pot, along with chili sauce and Puning soybean paste.
Bull Demon King Chaoshan Beef Restaurant
Opened this spring, Bull Demon King is a hot pot restaurant specializing in Chaoshan beef.
The restaurant has a “Journey to the West” theme, inspired by the Chinese literary classic. This eatery is not as high profile as other Chaoshan restaurants in the city. It is small and rustic, one of those “best-kept secrets” by its coterie of avid regular customers.
The water used to make the broth for the hot pot is Nongfu Spring. The broth is made fresh with each new order. There is a special soup base made with lemon, corn, white radish and beef bones. The flavor is slightly sweet and blissfully not very greasy.
The dishes are similar to other Chaoshan beef hot pot restaurants, with cuts such as diaolong, xiongkoulao and handmade meatballs. Portions are quite large.
For beverage, try the sweet homemade sugar cane juice. It’s an immediate thirst-quencher.
Average cost per person: 130 yuan/US$20
Address: 817 Yan’an Rd M.
Tucked inside a small building on Xiaomuqiao Road, Holy Cow is among the trendsetters in fresh beef hot pot in Shanghai. On the second floor is a large portrait of owner Anthony Zhao beside a sign that reads “food police.”
Zhao said he wants his restaurant to “change public views toward Chinese cuisine by offering clean, healthy, safe and natural food.”
The hot pot at Holy Cow comes with a rich beef broth and a variety of beef cuts. For those who like offal, intestines, tripe, tails and tongues are also available.
The restaurant boasts that it uses varieties of ingredients that can’t be found in other beef hot pot restaurants. Watermelon radishes, golden beets, patty pan squash, okra and watercress are among the seasonal ingredients grown by the restaurant at its own farm.
Specialties include xiaolongbao, which require around five minutes in the boiling broth. The pork buns ooze with the deep aroma and flavor of the beef bone broth.
Seafood lovers can order a dozen French Gillardeau oysters to stimulate the palate between servings of beef and vegetables. The restaurant has German white beer and a collection of sparkling wines on the menu.
Zhao said the best way to savor fresh beef hot pot is to cook the meat for only a couple of seconds, then dip it in a side sauce. The Holy Cow signature sauce is to mix satay sauce with a bit of soybean paste, a few drops of seafood soy sauce and a dab of coriander and white sesame. “I sometimes prefer it without any sauce to enjoy the raw and beautiful sweetness of fresh meat,” he said.
The second branch of Holy Cow will soon open at Bingo Mall in Changning District.
Average cost per person: 130 yuan
Address: 2/F, 608 Xiaomuqiao Rd
Jiu Niu Er Lu
The Chaoshan-style restaurant is another popular stop on gourmet trail. It is easy to spot on Changping Road because there’s always a long queue lined up outside. Guests are encouraged to book a table one week ahead or risk waiting at least 40 minutes before a table comes available.
The restaurant begins serving at 5pm. Diners are advised to come early if they want to sample beef cuts like diaolong, wuhuajian, shipi and shibing, which usually sell out quickly. By the time we got a table at 8pm, only three of nine beef cuts were still on the menu. Some cuts, such as xiongkoulao, which comprise only 0.11 percent of a cow, are in limited offering. Only two dishes of yangtaodu, a fleshy part of beef tripe, are served in the restaurant.
The menu takes patrons through all the various cuts of beef and even provides a diagram showing which part of the cow each cut comes from. The kitchen is open to view by diners, and it’s interesting to have a look at how the meat is prepared by chefs.
The hot pot comes with a rich, clear broth made from spinal bones and white turnip. Sauces available include satay, Chaoshan-style soybean paste, which is a bit salty, and chili sauce. Try the fried bean curd skins, a Chaoshan specialty, after you finish all the meat, and then order other vegetables, tofu and noodles to complete the culinary experience. Diners may also order takeaways of handmade meatballs and niujingrou, a part with tendons and brisket.
Average cost per person: 120 yuan
Address: 317-3 Changping Rd
Zuo Ting You Yuan
Zuo Ting You Yuan is one of the hot spots in hot pot restaurants in Shanghai, and uses only one cow a day to feed diners. That means it’s best to make reservations days ahead. Waiting lines could set you back two hours.
When entering the restaurant, there’s a window where you can see butchers preparing the beef.
This is a more modern version of Chaoshan beef hot pot that uses small individual pots instead of the traditional large, shared vessel. Each diner can choose a favorite broth, from rich beef to mushroom or tomato. There is a sauce, seasoning and spice station where people can mix their own favorite dipping sauces.
The restaurant uses large water distillation equipment to provide pure liquid for its broths.
For those not familiar with the Chaoshan style of beef cuts, each table provides a diagram of each cut and a recommended cooking time.
We ordered some of the signature beef dishes, along with a few appetizers and sides dishes. The Puning fried tofu is a popular snack of fried tofu wedges served with a dipping sauce.
Diaolong, xiongkoulao and wuhuajian are among the most popular beef cuts. If you get confused, just ask the waiters for help. They are very accommodating.
The restaurant’s raw beef meatballs are handmade without added starch or breadcrumbs. The meatballs are very chewy with a rich beef flavor.
Non-meat side dishes like fried bean curd sheets, okra, spinach, tofu and bamboo shoots are served in moderate portions.
For dessert, the mango shaved ice is great refreshment after a few rounds of beef dishes.