IT IS, as my best friend's mother likes to say, colder than a witch's tit outside. This is the perfect season to stick your face in a bubbling cauldron of nourishing broth or Szechuan spice brimming with enoki mushrooms, thin slices of beef, and plenty of leafy greens. Thusly, it is time to meet the wonder that is hot pot.
Hot pot, for the uninitiated, is a cook-it-yourself soup that's best experienced with a group. Order at will and linger. The good places always refill your broth before it gets too low. As the broth starts to boil, layer in noodles, bean curd, prawns, and pork. Take turns fishing out the cooked ingredients with metal strainers. Place them in your small bowl, and slurp away. It's easy to over-order; luckily, it's also easy to overeat.
A few tips: Meat is great, but neglect the veggies at your peril. There's nothing quite like a slightly crisp bite of napa cabbage, or a daikon radish that's absorbed all the flavors of the broth. Order the fish balls; they're really great. Resist using your chopsticks in the hot pot; it's frowned upon. Don't ignore the sauces. A sesame paste or garlic sauce, which you put into your own personal bowl, not in the broth, will add another layer of flavor.
It can seem daunting, but there's not a lot of snobbery to the process. Make your pot your own. I've always had a delicious time. Here's where you can get hot pot within city limits, ranked best to worst:
1. Chongqing Huo Guo
8230 SE Harrison, Ste. 315, 971-803-7999
Chongqing is the newest hot pot spot, and unreservedly the best. Huge banquet tables run through the center of the restaurant, which is filled with Asian families and culinary adventurers, all heaping fresh cuttlefish, spinach, and tofu skin into steaming pots.
It's the spiciest broth in town. As such, order your pot with a divider in the middle, one half filled with original broth (a garlicky chicken brew with floating star anise, herbs, and lotus root). Get the other half house-spicy, a flaming pepper bath that burns going in (and out, to be honest).
The combo platters—meat ($12.99), seafood ($12.55), and vegetables ($8.99)—are generously portioned and a great way to try different items without committing to a whole order. Stay away from the priciest meats, because in that broth, it all comes out hot and great. Order the house-made fish balls ($7.55), which are a great break from the standard frozen ones most hot pot places offer, with subtle flavor and a cushiony texture.
It would be a disservice not to order the Shanxi knife-cut noodles ($3.55), wheat noodles with scalloped edges that arrive fresh and cook in moments. They're chewy, mouthy and wonderful.
The only downside? There's no beer, wine, or liquor—and trust me, an ice-cold Tsingtao only makes this steamy experience better.
2. Hot Pot City
1975 SW 1st, 224-6696
I've got a soft spot for this place. There was a time in my life when Hot Pot City, a favorite of international students at nearby PSU, was a regular stop. The omnipresent owners began recognizing me, which is an honor and an embarrassment considering it's an all-you-can-eat buffet.
This is the most individualistic of all the hot pot places. There's a counter where diners choose their own hot pot, meaning the broth combinations and ingredients are all their own. This is a great place for a noob, who can control their entire hot pot destiny. Prices are advertised as such: lunch $10.75, dinner $16.50, and under 12, ask server (leading me to guess they check how fat your kid is, then charge on a sliding scale).
Ingredients are fresh, if of questionable provenance. There are oysters on the half shell, bacon, broccoli, fish balls, all sorts of meats, veggies, and noodles. Oh, and Hot Pot City has MS-fucking-G in the saltshakers. As the evening wears on, the plate-glass windows steam up, making you feel as if there's nothing else in the world except for you, these other lucky schmucks, and your gluttony. Save room for the mini candy bar that comes with the check.
3. Beijing Hot Pot
2768 SE 82nd, 774-2525
Sharing the parking lot with HA & VL, this is the best concentration of Asian soups in Portland. Here, the hot pots are set into the tables, and it's a nice touch that brings the soup down to eye level.
The broth isn't as spicy as Chongqing's, but it's still got zing. A $24.95 hot pot combo for two is perfect for a date night, offering flank steak and pork loin, heaps of veggies, handmade chicken meatballs, noodles, bean curd, and mushrooms. It's a fine time that won't let you down. It's the best hot pot place that serves beer.
4. Chin's Kitchen
4132 NE Broadway, 281-1203
This Americanized Chinese stalwart does buffet-style hot pot nightly for $14.99. There's beer, there's buffet ingredients. It's not memorable, but it's serviceable if you're in the neighborhood.
5. Hot Pot 'n' Sushi
10127 NE Cascades Parkway, 284-6075
This is a sushi-train place by the airport. It has mediocre sushi, and it doesn't even have hot pot. It's actually shabu-shabu, the Japanese version of cook-your-own soup. Therefore? Disqualified.