TNT Diner

10 molten meals guaranteed to arrive sizzling

A sizzling com tho ga roti dish at Pho Puyallup in Puyallup. Diners never have to worry it might arrive cool.
A sizzling com tho ga roti dish at Pho Puyallup in Puyallup. Diners never have to worry it might arrive cool. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Off-temperature food is a crime against dining.

Lukewarm, sorta warm or unintentionally cold food happens to this hired belly more times than it should.

Like when a server brings one dish, then there’s that awkward five-minute pause while we’re held captive until a table mate’s food arrives. Or, a dining partner wants one more snap with his fancy new cellphone camera, causing yet another hostage situation. Or, when poor kitchen timing and a low-functioning heat lamp turn a plate of previously amazing food into a lukewarm pile of resentment.

That’s why I’m always in search of food that arrives at the table so hot it’s molten.

I’m talking platters and bowls that arrive bubbling, boiling, sizzling, churning or sometimes all of the above. The food I’m talking about is, by design, the kind that not only makes satisfying sound effects, but also guarantees a level of hot that would be destructive if you were silly enough to take a bite right away.

The best part about the food I’m describing is that it appears in a far-flung range of cuisine. I traversed Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Mexican for this project. Take a tour here of 10 raging hot dishes you should try soon.

BOWLS THAT BUBBLE

The dish: Molcajete.

Found at: Moctezuma’s Mexican Restaurant, 4102 S. 56th St., Tacoma; 253-474-5593; moctezumas.com (also a Gig Harbor location).

Molcajete isn’t just the name of the recipe, it’s also the name of the stone bowl that resembles a mortar sitting on three legs. It’s often made of basalt or another stone that radiates heat, turning the dish into a molten mass of broth, veggies and meat. Moctezuma’s carne asada molcajete ($18.99) is the best I’ve had in the area, rating high for flavor and composition, arriving tableside with a furiously boiling broth teased with chiles and ground chorizo. Wide strips of poblanos provided grassy flavor and heat. Beefy slices of carne asada continued to cook as the dish sat (which meant the steak juices further fueled the already beefy broth). Served with tortillas, rice and beans, guacamole and sour cream. It’s also available with chicken or shrimp.

The dish: Bacon tofu soup

Found at: Cho Dang Tofu, 9701 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-682-1968. (other locations in Kent and Federal Way).

Breathe deep over the simmering stone cauldron of soon dubu at Cho Dang Tofu and you’ll get the added benefit of a quick steam facial.

The attractive Korean restaurant on the edge of the Paldo World shopping center features several sizzling, boiling concoctions, but bacon tofu soup ($9.99), also called soon dubu at other restaurants, is an ideal introduction.

It arrived with fatty-edged slices of pork belly sunk deep into a stone pot full of puffy clouds of silken tofu and a percolating chile broth at full boil. This is a two-fer of sizzling food. When the server brings rice in a hot stone pot, take care to scrape it into the accompanying bowl. If you wait too long, the rice can burn and adhere to the stone bowl. Deglaze the crisped rice in the stone pot with the accompanying broth for a mild roasted rice soup.

The dish: Chinese hot pot.

Found at: Tacoma Szechuan, 9601 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-581-0102; tacomaszechuanchinese.com.

Tacoma Szechuan serves a few styles of hot pot. There is the individually portioned Eastern hot pot, which is fine, but what I recommend is the communal hot pot, a cook-at-your-own-table adventure for at least two people. The restaurant is right next door to Cho Dang Tofu.

Hot pot here is basically a soup buffet brought in a series of dishes meant to be dumped into and cooked in a pot of boiling broth set over a propane burner. Pick from mild to a sweat-inducing Defcon 1-level spicy broth. The request of a pot separator means you can enjoy both soup bases. A first-timer should get the “buffet” pot with pork, chicken, beef and lamb ($15.95 per person). You’ll be brought dishes of raw meat, noodles, raw greens, tofu and other raw veggies.

The dish: Vietnamese hot pot.

Found at: Pho Puyallup, 12702 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup; 253-840-8542.

If the Vietnamese hot pot at South Hill’s modestly-appointed Pho Puyallup doesn’t arrive as a churning mass, just wait. It will boil soon enough. It took about two minutes for the combination hot pot ($12.50), seafood and beef with a sterno underneath the base to work some hot magic. We added peppery-earthy leaves of crown daisy, fresh spinach, cabbage and egg noodles to a pot already filled with pickled carrots, fish cake, squid and broadly sliced beef. We dug deeper and found a surprise: a porky hunk of peppery sausage. This dish is meant for one, but easily feeds two.

The dish: Vietnamese clay pot

Found at: Pho Mekong Vietnamese Cuisine, 2901 S. 47th St., Tacoma; 253-474-2728.

The broth in the Vietnamese clay pot at Pho Mekong, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood, hops between sweet and savory. In recipes for clay pot, such as ca kho to (clay pot fish), caramelized sugar is an important step and a base note of the broth. At Mekong, clay pots arrived thermo-nuclear level hot, with fast simmering sweet-savory broth threaded with mushrooms, bamboo shoots and onion, plus fresh cilantro sprinkled on top. The pork pot ($9.50) featured long strips of tender meat. The shrimp pot ($10.50) was teeming with tail-on shrimp that were sweet and plump. It was accompanied by a sweet-sour cabbage salad topped with fried shallots.

The dish: Sizzling rice soup.

Found at: Lieu’s Restaurant, 12151 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-535-5680.

For generations, sizzling rice soup at Chinese-American restaurants has been a tableside party trick for kids and grownups alike. My favorite place for this soup is Lieu’s, a long-established Chinese restaurant in Parkland.

A server brought a large bowl of broth ($10.50) filled with bits of chicken thigh, baby shrimp, more fresh bok choy than I expected, bean sprouts and sliced greens. Into the hot broth, the server slid a broken up block of rice that had been heated seconds earlier until it was nearly scorched. A slight tip of the plate dumped the molten rice into the already hot broth, creating an impressive sizzling sound effect and a thick mass of steam. A large order here will feed six for an appetizer or two for a meal.

DISHES THAT SIZZLE

The dish: Dolsot bibimbap

Found at: Cho Dang Tofu, 9701 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-682-1968.

Cho Dang Tofu, the Lakewood Korean restaurant that serves the soon dubu, features another sizzling treat on its menu: dolsot bibimbap ($10.99). A scorching hot stone pot ringed with rice was filled with chopped zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, sprouts, little flecks of meat and a jiggly raw egg set right into the center. It’s a stir-it-yourself dish and the kind you don’t want sitting too long, unless you like crusty rice bits that can’t be pried loose except with a chisel. My technique is to dip and swirl until every piece is fully incorporated into something resembling fried rice and the egg fully cooks into the steaming mass of ingredients. Want more heat and flavor? Squeeze in gochujang, Korean fermented soybean paste spiked with chile.

The dish: Com tho ga roti.

Found at: Pho Puyallup, 12702 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup; 253-840-8542.

Like dolsot bibimbap, the com tho ga roti at Pho Puyallup comes in a blistering hot pot, but this one is cast iron. You have less than a few minutes to stir and scrape before the rice turns crunchy where it meets the pot. Cleavered and roasted bone-in dark chicken, with a shiny red lacquer coating (like the kind you find on char siu), filled the pot. A side of vinaigrette provided tang, plus a puff of steam when drizzled into the pot. A side of pickled carrot slices can be eaten plain (the way I like them) or added to the rice.

The dish: Tequila-flamed fajitas.

Found at: Moctezuma’s Mexican Restaurant, 4102 S. 56th St., Tacoma; 253-474-5593; moctezumas.com.

Every sit-down Mexican restaurant offers fajitas, of course, but Moctezuma’s turns its fajitas into a flaming affair for a mere two bucks more. For that surcharge, a server adds a ramekin of tequila to the sizzling tower, flames the booze, then let’s you watch as it cooks down to a tasty sauce. I ordered mine vegetarian ($13.99) and was rewarded with oregano-flecked roasted halved tomatoes, onions, bell pepper, half moons of zucchini, mushrooms and broccoli florets on a sizzling iron platform. Served with poblano-lime rice, slow-simmered black beans and handmade tortillas grilled fresh to order in the lobby of the restaurant.

The dish: Sizzling rice shrimp.

Found at: Lieu’s Restaurant, 12151 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-535-5680.

Just as Lieu’s sizzling rice soup provides table-side entertainment, so does the stir-fried sizzling rice shrimp ($11.45) at the Parkland restaurant. A soupy plate of shrimp with carrots, chopped onion and cauliflower, in an uncomplicated sweetened sauce, was set down gently by our server. Over the top of the plate, she pushed another blistering hot broken-up block of rice that popped and crackled the moment it made contact with the thin sauce, which bubbled into a soft boil from the extra heat.

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