If there is one last great culinary mountaintop most of us Westerners have yet dared to climb, it's the fermented delicacy known as stinky tofu. Think you've conquered ripe French cheeses? Thai fish sauce? Kimchi? They're child's play. Stinky tofu is a different kind of rot, a substance straddling the line between what's edible and what long ago reached an advanced stage of decomposition. To say it gives off an odor fetid and rank, something not unlike the gaseous emanations of an open sewer married with the aromas of a back-alley dumpster, is putting it mildly.
When you're in the vicinity of a stinky tofu purveyor, such as a particularly notorious restaurant next to the Hong Kong Supermarket in Rowland Heights, you don't see the store so much as smell it. The stench comes at you as though it's an invisible swarm of bees from yards away, an all-out attack against which you're powerless. But once you're in, your olfactory organs become so thoroughly overwhelmed you acclimate and get used to the abuse, leaving you completely prepared and ready to eat.
You don't get such an introduction at the new Boiling Point hot pot restaurant in Irvine. This is why it's dangerous. It's the equivalent of a sneaky, stinky tofu assassin armed with a silencer. The smell that would otherwise warn you against what you're about to consume is nonexistent. The pictures and the Chipotle-style paper menu give no hint of what lurks in the kitchen. The place actually doesn't even bill itself as a stinky tofu restaurant. It specializes in Taiwanese hot pots, meaty stews served on Sterno-heated mini-woks.
Boiling Point, bpgroupusa.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30. Beer and wine.
Before you know it, you're embroiled in guerrilla warfare. You order the first thing pictured on the huge photos that advertise all of its seven offerings—a dish surreptitiously called the "House Special"—not realizing that the star ingredient is the foe you know too well. It hits you when you bite into the white curd; there's something wrong with this triangle of tofu. It tastes pungent, sharp, almost bitter, with an aftertaste of sweaty shorts and gym socks. The flavor, it turns out, is even more concentrated in the broth beneath. The slow simmer of the soup has caused most of the tofu's malodorous personality to leech out and fully inhabit the liquid. You see other customers slurp up the juice as if it were the milk in their cereal—but you, the wimp that you are, would sooner kiss the bum than drink his bathwater.
Instead, you nibble away at the rest of the bounty, which, for the average consumer, is already advanced stuff. Deep purple cubes of congealed pork blood crumble like hardened Jell-O. Rubbery bits of intestines squeak. You admit you're not ready for the House Special, but you are enamored by the lamb hot pot. It's a revelation, even if it does seem as though it's shabu shabu for the lazy. Everything you want and need—veggies, protein and a freshly cracked egg—is there already cooked to be picked off one-by-one—dipped into chile oil, garlic soy or a garlic chile paste more salty than spicy, then paired with rice. And then there's the broth, a simmering liquid to be sipped by a shallow ladle. The brew gets more complex the more the liquid reduces. The thinly sliced lamb melts into it, adding its own unique gamy stink; the egg poaches into amoeba-shaped ovals; and the Chinese pickled greens perk up the in-between bites.
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There's also a beef hot pot, which has more complex spicing and corn on the cob. The seafood hot pot comes with peel-and-eat shrimp, while a kimchi hot pot has sliced pork. Curry-heads flock to a fish ball soup so potent with curry power it'd make an Indian wince. When the air is particularly chilly, the pots billow as though they were equipped with dry-ice machines. But if there's one drawback to these Sterno-heated vessels, it's that there's no way to control the temperature. And when the fuel is depleted, the whole thing literally runs out of steam. Yours might peter out before your neighbor's. and what was once dynamic, gurgling and alive will seem boring, stagnant and comatose.
If you're lucky, you finish before that happens. It's a sign to move onto the shaved snow, which cools the parts of your mouth you singed with soup and punished with spices. But with it, you face another mountaintop, a more literal one. The dessert mound is two feet tall if it's a mile high, shaved to soft ribbons from blocks of frozen milk. The chocolate one is showered with crushed Oreo cookies, Rice Krispies and nuts. This mountain, you think to yourself, you can handle.
This review appeared in print as "Stink Different: Boiling Point offers roiling hot pots with the malodorous delicacy called stinky tofu."