Ooh, that smell. Lynyrd Skynyrd would never need to ask, "Can't you smell that smell?" at Boiling Point in Seattle. This thriving chain, which also has a location across the lake in Bellevue (as well as eight in southern California and two outside Vancouver, BC), serves up a wide variety of Taiwanese hot pots. Number one on the list is the House Special Hot Soup ($11.99 for lunch, $12.99 for dinner), which features stinky tofu.
Its pungent smell pervades the restaurant, but that shouldn't stop you from ordering it. Get past the smell, and there's a lot of pleasure to enjoy. Like the best of stinky cheeses, stinky tofu's flavor is complex—slightly sour and nutty—with spongy texture and an odor that actually attracts me. (Then again, I like most fermented foods.) Besides, stinky tofu is just one of many ingredients in this hot pot, which comes with Nappa cabbage, sliced pork, enoki mushrooms, kamaboko (fish cake), meatballs, a clam, a quail egg, pork blood pieces, pork intestine, green nira (chives), salty veggies (pickled mustard greens), and tomato. All of this in a bubbling broth that comes in your choice of spice level, from "no spicy" to "tiny spicy" to mild, medium, very, and "flaming spicy."
I prefer this hot pot at a medium spicy level; it allows the funky, pungent flavor of the stinky tofu to shine through. You can order from a huge list of additional toppings, from meats to vegetables to noodles to eggs, but since the hot pot comes with a side of white rice, it actually makes for a pretty filling meal, even without them. The broth in the House Special has a slightly salty and vinegary flavor from the pickled greens, and I only enjoyed it more as the temperature cooled.
Lunch is the better deal at Boiling Point, and that lower price also includes a free drink: black tea, green tea, or Coke. The drink comes in a sealed cup (à la bubble tea, which is available for a little extra) so that you can easily take it to-go.
There are ten hot pots in all, with soups ranging from Japanese Miso to Thai Flavor to Curry Fish Ball to Tomato Veggie (which still contains pork!). For some contrast to the House Special, this heat-seeker also had to try the Taiwanese Spicy Hot Soup ($14.99 lunch, $15.99 dinner), which comes with Taiwanese cabbage, instant (ramen) noodles, sliced beef, enoki mushrooms, tempura, clam, Foochow fishball, cuttlefish rings, pork blood, pork intestines, fried tofu skin, maitake mushroom, and iced tofu. There are lots of meaty flavors and textures in this hot pot, including the fishball—my favorite component, thanks to its meaty minced pork filling.
But the best part of the Taiwanese Spicy is that it comes at only one spice level: flaming. I can't imagine you'd need the spicy condiments on-hand at each table, though I did use a combination of them as a dipping sauce for some of the proteins. The spice level is intense, and only magnified by the bubbling-hot broth. I had to ask a server to turn the flame of my hot pot off (it's on or off, with no in-between)—that hot temperature combined with the spice level made it nearly impossible to eat. Once the bubbling subsided and the soup was no longer scorching, though, I couldn't get enough of the rich red broth and vast array of ingredients in the pot. The only downside to turning off the hot-pot flame? The clams don't open. But there's only one per hot pot, and when I asked a young server about it, she candidly commented that they never open. When I asked if people complain, she said, "Yes, but there's nothing we can do about it."
Boiling Point employs slew of servers who race around the floor. The work is demanding, as there are huge crowds packing the entryway by noon on weekends. They, too, are mostly young people, almost exclusively Chinese, which explains the C-pop playing in the background. There's a positive spirit, as the diners seem to delight in the hot pot varieties and contents. And everyone seemed to savor the stinky tofu, except for the Caucasian couple next to me who ordered some on the side and left it uneaten, save for the tiniest of nibbles.