Sweet Home Cafe / The Japanese have shabu shabu and the Taiwanese and Chinese have hot pot. Both dishes involve cooking thinly sliced meat and other items such as cabbage or fish cake in steaming pots of broth, but the similarities end there. While shabu shabu uses Japanese dashi-style broth, Taiwanese hot pot offers a wider range of soup styles, from spicy to sour cabbage. Many islanders are more than familiar with shabu shabu, but hot pot has yet to reach that level of popularity. Thankfully, O’ahu finally has a hot pot restaurant–Sweet Home Cafe on King Street. Now, islanders can try something new and hot pot fans can finally get their fix.
Sandwiched between a Kozo Sushi and a Chinese restaurant, Sweet Home Cafe can be easy to miss. Some that do catch a glimpse of it are easily puzzled by the 10 or more steaming pots sitting on each table but really, there isn’t much to be confused about.
Keep it simple
Hot pot at Sweet Home Cafe is simple. First, choose a style of broth from the menu. The list is extensive, ranging from the traditional regular chicken broth to other flavors such as tomato beef, curry, spicy and even sake–a soup base comprised of sake with goji berries and other Chinese herbs. The soup prices stretch from $5.95 for the regular to $12.95 for the mixed mushroom. For those who have a hard time deciding, there’s the option of dividing a pot in half and putting two soups in one pot. It’s a little more costly but worth it if you really want to experiment with the different flavors. The owner, Susend Chang, a petite curly-haired lady who can most times be found running around her establishment in a kerchief and apron, says the two most popular soups right now are healthy herb (a broth entirely made of good-for-you Chinese herbs) and spicy (a soup flavored by what looks like peppers and other Chinese spices that will transform you into a fire-breathing dragon).
The second step is to select meats for the soup. Sweet Home Cafe offers beef, pork, lamb and gyu-tan (cow tongue). Two refrigerators in the back of the restaurant are packed with other food items packaged in colored bowls and plates. Plates are color-coded to price (like at Genki Sushi) and customers can take whatever they want from the refrigerator and bring to their tables to cook. At the end of your meal the plates are tallied up and the price is calculated. The offerings include items like cabbage, zucchini, tofu and udon.
But perhaps what makes Sweet Home Cafe even more special is that it offers Taiwanese delicacies that are otherwise difficult to find on this island. For some people these dishes, like pork blood cakes and intestines, might sound disgusting, but to those who grew up eating such dishes, finding this little hole-in-the-wall eatery is like finding a diamond in a coal mine.
Chang knows what a rarity these foods are. “I import more than 60 percent of the food, like the fish balls and squid balls from Taiwan,” she said. Though it’s costly for her to do so she has no choice since she can’t find a vendor here.
When Chang first opened in 2007, she was hesitant. “Hawai’i is so hot and hot pot is a boiling soup,” she says. Even so, she saw the success of the shabu shabu restaurants and thought that she could offer a different perspective with her Taiwanese style hot pot. Plus, she promised her father back in Taiwan that she’d carry on the family business.
“My family background is in the hot pot business,” explained Chang. “We had a restaurant in Taiwan for 30 years.” Chang’s soup recipes have all been in the family for years and each broth is a complex layer of flavors. Her regular style broth, the most basic soup, is an aromatic blend of chicken broth, onions, celery and a blend of seasonings. It is highly recommended for those fighting a cold or customers who prefer a simple, less adventurous meal.
Sweet Home Cafe is small, no more than 10 tables, and entirely family-run. Customers see Chang running around her restaurant every day. Her husband, Vang, and sister also help her throughout the week. Chang’s 20-year-old son Victor and 16-year-old daughter Stacy take time off on their weekends to help mom wait and bus tables. Susend’s older brother, works in the back, cooking the soups and preparing dishes. The former head chef at Hong Kong Harbor View and Shanghai Bistro, Chef Chang passed up offers to work with famous chefs like Alan Wong and Sam Choy, to help his little sister continue their family business.
Chang and her family have thrown in everything they have in to opening the restaurant. Her husband put his handyman job on hold and she quit her job as a tour guide. Chang designed the restaurant herself and her husband carried out her requests with the construction. Everything from the floral wallpaper and framed pictures on the wall to the colorful sugar and coffee jars are reminiscent of a cozy, country home.
“I named my restaurant ‘Sweet Home Cafe’ because I wanted my customers to feel at home here,” Chang explained. “I wanted them to think of me as an auntie.”
More than hot pot
Sweet Home Cafe also offers a wide array of bubble tea (boba) and shaved ice. The fresh fruit tea is a refreshing alternative if you don’t want something as heavy as a lychee smoothie. It’s a sweet, fruit-infused tea with chunks of fruit cocktail floating inside. The shaved ice comes in flavors like mango or strawberry and black sand beach–ice covered in red beans, condensed milk and tapioca pearls. All are delicious but if you’re a fan of red beans and tapioca, black sand beach won’t disappoint.
Next up for Chang? With the success of her first restaurant, she hopes to open up another next summer. “It’s always been my dream to open a Taiwanese cuisine restaurant, where they serve mainly bar food and drinks,” she said.
Chang’s business has traveled by word of mouth and many of her customers are regulars who she knows by name or face. Business is booming now, especially on the weekends. The only complaints Chang gets are from upset customers who can’t get a table. “We’re very busy on the weekends and the place is small. Hot pot takes time to eat,” she said.
Sweet Home Cafe
2334 South King St., Suite 102
Mon–Sun 5PM–12AM. 947-3707; for reservations call 223-0123. Payment: MC, V.