Karaoke, Cosplay, and Excellent Hot Pot at Twilight 7 Near Seattle

Twilight 7 combination pot

You can customize your own House Special Combination Pot [Photographs: Jay Friedman]

Dining at Twilight 7 is truly a unique experience, and I don't mean that lightly. Situated in a Bellevue strip mall, the restaurant sprawls the length of several storefronts, but there's virtually no view of what's happening inside. But if you enter through the correct door, you'll be thrust into a sort of Ponderosa Steakhouse-meets-cosplay cafe-meets-karaoke bar-meets Chinese restaurant, and that qualifies in my book as a truly unique dining experience.

What appears to be year-round Christmas lighting hangs above picnic-like tables and benches (the steakhouse vibe), with karaoke available in other areas of the restaurant, which serves until 2 a.m. nightly (minus Mondays). Online reviews indicate that the young Chinese waitresses wear tight pink t-shirts and short shorts or mini-skirts, but during my recent visit, the motif was somewhat Native American, with the women wearing Indian feather headbands (apparently a trend in some Taiwanese cafes).

It's easy to feel pessimistic.

The language barrier can be difficult, making menu-deciphering somewhat challenging. Communication almost seems discouraged, since the server will give you a paper menu "scorecard" and a pen to accompany the laminated menu. That paper menu actually comes in handy, especially in ordering the customizable House Special Combination Pot ($2.75 per meat and seafood item, $2 per vegetable item). It will help you understand that "fogs" (on the laminated menu) is really "frogs" and that "borecole" is "broccoli." Mushrooms are more mystifying when labeled "volvaria speciosa" (written as simply "mushrooms" on the paper menu) and "agrocybe aegerita" ("King Mushroom" on the paper menu).

Twilight 7 interior

Twilight 7 means music, TVs, lights, and more

Filling out the form, from the meat and seafood section I went with tripe, quail eggs, and pork belly. Then, from the vegetable section, I chose bamboo shoots and cabbage before rolling the dice on "King Mushroom." Awaiting arrival of the food, I read more of the menu and started to gain a sense of hope. The menu is interesting. A kebab section lists grilled squid heads, lamb kidneys, chicken knees, pork intestines, halibut collar, and much more. Appetizers include salted pork hock, Szechuan bean jelly, and salted baby fungus. The number of chili pepper symbols made the spice level look promising.

When the combination pot appeared, my lingering doubts disappeared. The tripe was nice and chewy, there was a generous portion of quail eggs, and the thin-sliced pork belly was slightly smoky in flavor, with just the right amount of fat. The crunchy and leafy textures of the bamboo and cabbage were great, and the "King Mushrooms" turned out to be king trumpet mushrooms that were earthy and meaty. The pot included a sprinkling of sesame seeds and sliced green onion, and ample chili pepper and Sichuan peppercorn to achieve the ma la (spicy and numbing) effect that I particularly enjoy. (Note that you can also get a non-customized House Special Combination Pot for $15.99, and a $1.50 extra, an order of white rice flavored with corn and olive oil in the side.)

I later learned that Twilight 7 has the same owner as Spiced, which I included in my list of recommended Sichuan restaurants in the Seattle area. Given food like the combination pot, I'd add Twilight 7 to the list (with one caveat: Twilight 7 doesn't bill itself as exclusively Sichuan, as there are also northern Chinese dishes). The baffling d├ęcor and service are just an added bonus, or, as they like to call it as they go for the young crowd: fun.