Arizona Avenue — the broad, sunny artery that cuts through the southeast Valley and serves as Chandler’s unofficial main street — is one of the great, unsung food streets in metro Phoenix. I’ve visited the thoroughfare frequently over the past two years, and in that time I’ve come to see it as a microcosm of what’s great about the Valley’s maturing food and drink scene.
True, it’s dotted with as many fast food shops and chain outlets as any other street in town, but it’s also flush with strong neighborhood restaurants, cafes, and breweries — both landmarks and landmarks-in-the-making.
I’d argue that you can even chart the evolution and changing character of the metro Phoenix food scene along this route. Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., on the northern end of the street, reminds me of how quickly Gilbert has become a food and drink destination. Arirang and Chodang, local destinations for Korean barbecue, are evidence of the southeast Valley’s swiftly expanding Korean food scene. American Way Market, tucked inside the Merchant Square Antique Marketplace, is yet another potent reminder that, in metro Phoenix, gems often turn up in the most unexpected places.
Which brings me to Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine, a small restaurant inside a quintessentially bland Chandler strip mall.
click to enlarge
Hot Pot owner Karen Francis.
Hot Pot has been a staple of Arizona Avenue for around nine years; I’ve been driving past it for ages, yet I only recently discovered how good it is, thanks to a tip from a couple of Hot Pot regulars. Neighborhood locals seem to be Hot Pot’s bread and butter, and after eating there a handful of times, it’s easy to understand why anyone might become a regular.
The restaurant has been active in nurturing a sense of community, hosting a popular fish fry night on the first Friday of every month, and they launched their first food truck recently, too. Though it’s modest in size, its brick-and-mortar space radiates the sort of comfort and coziness you might associate with a neighborhood coffeehouse. It’s spare but well-appointed, with black-and-white checkerboard floors; a colorful Jamaican flag-inspired color scheme; and a couple of oversize, tufted booths, plus a scattering of tables and chairs. Bob Marley tunes vibrate over the speakers, and the laidback ambiance is complemented by the friendly presence of owner Karen Francis and her team, who seem to be on a first-name basis with many of their regulars.
Of course, you can’t build a great neighborhood spot on ambiance and friendly service alone. Hot Pot exceeds expectations where it really counts, which is to say that it’s hard to leave the dining room without feeling well-nourished and at least a little bit delighted. In a city starved of Jamaican restaurants, Hot Pot is thankfully not just a fallback option for those moments when only jerk chicken will do. This is a first-rate neighborhood restaurant, one that brings traditional Jamaican dishes to full, vivid life.
If you’re new to Hot Pot, it’s helpful to know that there are several important decisions you’ll make when you eat here. First, you must decide if you want to order something to drink — it would be a mistake to pass on the sorrel, Jamaica’s classic sweet-spicy hibiscus drink. And if you love ginger, don’t miss the homemade ginger beer, which has a bit of bite, but is also refreshing.
You order at the counter, where somebody will ask you, at some point, “Rice and peas, or white rice?” and “Fried plantains, or veggies?”
The rice and peas, and the fried plantains, are usually the right choice — both are cooked with the kind of well-executed consistency that is only earned through years behind the stove.
But before you settle on your sides, the most excruciating decision of all will probably involve choosing between the goat curry or oxtails. Both are highlights of eating at Hot Pot.
click to enlarge
If you try one dish at Hot Pot, make it the goat curry.
Fortunately, you won’t go wrong with either option. I will argue, though, that the essential dish at Hot Pot is the goat curry, a dish of expansive flavor and irresistible texture. The curry is a thick and creamy stew, redolent with onion and garlic, and perfumed with just enough curry powder to tickle your palate. The bony hunks of meat are simmered and browned until all that’s left is slinky, meaty flakes of savory flavor. Like many traditional Jamaican dishes, the dish’s deep flavor is derived from its long, slow cook time. The long braise, especially, helps showcase the natural succulence and earthy tones of the goat meat.
Oxtails, bathed in a lightly sweet, herb-scented, gravy-like stew, are similarly rich and compelling. This is the kind of comfort food traditionally reserved for rainy days, but in sunny metro Phoenix, it’s just as delicious on plain old sunny afternoons. Paired with a tender, starchy side of rice and peas, the beefy, rich oxtails are one of the most flavorful and satisfying offerings at Hot Pot.
There’s jerk chicken, of course, Jamaica’s famously time-intensive barbecue chicken. The Hot Pot version features a full quarter of meat, wrapped deliciously in the restaurant’s darkly ruddy homemade sauce. The jerk chicken sauce is aromatic, a little smoky, with just a little bite. It’s too good not to try at least once. Pair it with a side of tender fried plantains — the sweetness complements the spicy chicken beautifully.
click to enlarge
The brown stew chicken is tender and succulent.
If you’ve never taken to the spiciness of jerk chicken, though, try Hot Pot’s brown stew chicken, another classic dish with flavors that run deep. On a recent visit, the dish featured several pieces of bone-in chicken, braised in a deeply savory gravy. The meat was so tender and succulent, it flaked right off the bone.
Hot Pot has a strong seafood menu, too, and the thing to try at least once is the escovitch fish, a whole red snapper fried to a golden-brown crisp and served with pickled peppers. You pick the meat off the fine-boned fish, delighting in the sweet, lean meat, which complements beautifully the vinegary peppers.
Traditional Jamaican cooking is known for its big, bold flavors, and that’s a fair description for the restaurant’s curry shrimp. The dish features plump shrimp, nicely cooked to a bright, springy finish, served in a beautifully creamy and slightly spicy, coconut-inflected sauce.
The cooking at Hot Pot is hearty and rich, but you’ll want to try to leave room for a slice of homemade rum cake, which is so dangerously decadent and moist, you may feel the need to spoon the dessert into your mouth as if it were ice cream.
On a recent visit, Francis, the owner of Hot Pot, took the time to show me how to properly take a sip of sorrel drink after each bite, the traditional way of enjoying cake and sorrel during the Christmas holidays. It’s sweet, spicy, indulgent, perfect finish to a meal at Hot Pot, which is a place that deserves to be on your list of go-to Arizona Avenue neighborhood restaurants.
Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine
2081 North Arizona Avenue, #132, Chandler
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday
Goat curry $9.99
Escovitch fish Market price
Brown stew chicken $9.99