If you run in certain food-obsessed circles, you probably know the guy who will travel any distance in hopes of finding a proper New York bagel, or the gal who keeps extensive notes on every barbecue restaurant within a hundred-mile radius.
My own personal culinary white whale is stinky tofu — the infamous, and exquisitely delicious, Taiwanese night-market street snack that Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern once likened to "hot sizzling Limburger cheese." Here in the Bay Area, you'll occasionally find the stuff on a Taiwanese or Shanghainese menu, but it's usually a pale, barely stinky shadow of the real deal.
Suffice to say, then, that when I heard a restaurant in Berkeley was serving stinky-tofu hot pot, it was a siren call too seductive to resist.
That's how I found myself at Tasty Pot, a San Jose-based chain of hot pot restaurants that opened its downtown Berkeley location — its first in the East Bay — in late February. It's located in the old, pre-fire Great China spot, so you know the place has good Chinese-restaurant bones. Tasty Pot seems to have inherited that esteemed eatery's lines as well, with wait times that are often a half-hour or longer.
The East Bay has its fair share of hot pot restaurants, but Tasty Pot is one of the only ones I'm aware of that draws on Taiwan's vibrant hot-pot culture. In the capital city of Taipei, for instance, you never have to walk more than a couple of blocks to find a hot pot restaurant, and there's about as much variety to these establishments as there is among American sandwich shops. There are mushroom-centric vegetarian hot pot restaurants, ma-la hot pot restaurants that compete for the title of most face-meltingly spicy soup-base, and buffet-style hot pot restaurants where you pick from a lineup of luxury ingredients like Hokkaido hairy crab.
But the most traditional way to eat hot pot is the way that most Chinese and Taiwanese folks serve it at home: family-style — a big pot of stock simmering over a propane burner, and platters of vegetables, thinly sliced meats, and sundry delicious processed-fish products all lined up on the table so that each hot-pot eater can dunk and cook what they please.
Tasty Pot specializes in a relatively newfangled variation on the genre: individual hot pots. Each diner's bubbling pot arrives at the table with all of the ingredients already pre-cooked in the soup, so that all of the work is taken out of the process. All you have to do is eat. And I have to admit that something does get lost when you remove the communal aspect of the meal — the way everyone crosses chopsticks trying to snag that last head-on shrimp, and the way the flavor of the soup builds over the course of night.
That being said, it is amazingly decadent to have an entire hot pot all to yourself — all the more so when the portions are as generous, and the broths as flavorful, as they are here.
Michael You, who manages the Berkeley location, said all of the Tasty Pot franchises use the same recipes and source their ingredients from the same suppliers as the original San Jose restaurant. One of the strengths of the individual hot pot approach is that it can appeal to a wider audience: Westerners who didn't grow up eating hot pot may find the prospect of selecting a preset meal to be less intimidating than restaurants where you have to pick and choose between dozens of unfamiliar raw ingredients — and then figure out how to cook them. Meanwhile, the flavors are bold enough to appeal to hardcore hot pot eaters. (This is, after all, a restaurant that has stinky tofu on the menu!)
Tasty Pot offers twelve different preset individual hot pots, which run the gamut from fairly conventional ingredient combinations, each headlined by a different kind of meat (e.g., a lamb pot, a beef pot, and a seafood pot); to soups based around a particular ethnic flavor profile (e.g., a curry hot pot and a Japanese miso hot pot). Many of the ingredients you'll find are identical to what you could buy yourself at any 99 Ranch Market — the thin slices of pork or beef, the blocks of instant ramen, or the many different varieties of fishballs, my favorite of which are the Fuzhou style (which has a ground-pork filling) and the pointy-tipped ones, which are filled with tiny orange fish roe.
But where any reputable hot pot restaurant sets itself apart is with its soup base. Apart from a lone vegetarian option, Tasty Pot uses the same basic pork broth for all of its preset hot pots, and it is excellent — clean-tasting and savory, with a depth of flavor that's built over five or six hours of simmering. Each hot pot can be adjusted to your preferred spice level — from "none" up through "flaming spicy." You might be tempted to go big, but my favorite dish was actually the lamb hot pot ordered with no spice. In the absence of chili heat, I relished the nuances of the broth — the sweetness from the napa cabbage and the gamey flavor that it took on from the lamb. On the other end of the spectrum, if you prefer bolder flavors and a sweat-dripping hot-pot experience, there's the "Taiwanese Supreme Spicy" hot pot, which takes that same pork broth and infuses it with ma-la flavor — not just chili heat, but also the tongue-numbing sensation produced by Sichuan peppercorns.
The hot pots are a good value proposition, all priced at $11.99 or $14.99 — for premium hot pots — and a dollar less during lunch service. All of the soups I tried were flavorful enough to render any kind of dipping sauce mostly unnecessary. But the sauces the restaurant provides are all quite good: chili oil, garlic soy sauce, and a funky fermented soybean sauce. Choose your favorite, or mix them together in whatever proportion suits your taste. I found out too late that the traditional Taiwanese hot-pot dipping sauce — the fish-based condiment known as shacha sauce, into which it's customary to mix a raw egg yolk — is available by request.
If your chosen hot pot doesn't have an ingredient you want, you can order it as an a la carte add-on. One tip: Extra orders of meat come pre-cooked by default, but you can request them raw — a boon to diners who want a more traditional hot pot experience, with full control over the cooking process, so the meat doesn't get overcooked. Truthfully, the a la carte selection is pretty skimpy compared to other hot pot restaurants, particularly in terms of the vegetable selection. You won't, for instance, find tong choy and other lesser-known greens that are considered hot-pot staples.
But what I loved about Tasty Pot is how Taiwanese the place felt, from the music down to the beverage selection, which You explained is overseen by an on-site "boba guy."
Of course, the most Taiwanese thing of all was the stinky tofu. In the Bay Area, the fermented tofu product is most commonly served in its deep-fried form — you can find toned-down versions at places like Dragon Gate and Spices! 3 in Oakland. But connoisseurs of the stuff embrace its pungent quality. For those of us who fall into that category, the aforementioned stinky tofu hot pot is a rare treat. The funk of the tofu, cut into triangular wedges, infuses a soup studded with fatty pork intestines and glutinous pork-blood cakes — and plenty of fresh vegetables to keep it from being too overwhelming.
But the title of stinkiest — and most delicious — stinky tofu I've found in the East Bay might go to Tasty Pot's side of "Spicy Fermented Tofu," in which the tofu gets pan-fried, tossed in chili sauce, and sprinkled with fresh cilantro. It was rich and intensely savory with a hint of sourness, and, for me, almost stinky enough. Both the flavor and the smell — like a well-ripened cheese — made me feel right at home.