Pop quiz: what do Berkeley, San Francisco, San Diego, and Minneapolis have in common?
You can rule out geography and cost of living. And the ocean. We now have one thing that puts us in the same camp – an outpost of Tasty Pot, a growing chain specializing in Taiwanese hot pot. In fact, the Dinkytown restaurant is the first outside of California.
To make hot pot, the ingredients are cooked in broth, similar to Japanese shabu shabu or Korean hot pot. But whereas those are do-it-yourself affairs, at Tasty Pot, your dish comes fully assembled and ready to eat. It’s a meal – or two – in a bowl. The list of ingredients in all of the hot pots runs easily to 15 items or more.
Some of those ingredients will test your adventurous eating boundaries. The stink in the stinky tofu comes from fermenting. It’s an acquired taste, as is the pork blood ricecake and beef tendon. But you can also land in more familiar territory with shrimp, pork, or beef as the featured item. A couple of the hot pots are served with a small piece of corn on the cob and will make a Midwesterner feel right at home.
The restaurant, which is just a few doors down from the venerable Al’s Breakfast, joins the already burgeoning ranks of inexpensive Asian restaurants on Dinkytown’s main drag. In its first month of business, Tasty Pot has been drawing steady crowds according to our server. A line was forming as we left.
The space is compact, with three rows of tables, one against each wall and one running right down the middle of the room. Décor is comfortable but minimal, with a mostly brown color palette accentuated here and there with pops of orange. One wall is dominated by an oversized photo of the Taipei skyline, another by a chalkboard listing daily specials.
The menu follows this streamlined aesthetic as well. There are 10 hot pots listed on the menu, and just two price points. Numbers 1 through 7 are $11.99 for lunch and $12.99 for dinner, while numbers 8 through 10 are $14.99 and $15.99.
Our helpful server walked us through the ordering process: Once you decide on your preferred hot pot, you pick a spice level (ranging from not-at-all to flaming spicy), and then opt for either noodles or rice.
Service is fast. The hot pot comes to the table in a bowl nestled into an impressive inverted pagoda. The pagoda hides a powerful sterno-type burner that keeps the broth bubbling. The bowl can barely contain the overflowing bounty that makes up each hot pot. Word to the wise: There's a lever that lets you extinguish the flame so your ingredients don’t overcook. You’ll want to use it, lest you scorch your tongue.
The physical heat will burn more than the spice level. A kimchi hot pot ordered “very spicy,” a four on a scale of five, right before “flaming,” barely moved the dial above Minnesota spicy. Which is probably a good thing, since the broth could be easily overpowered.
Depending on your taste buds, the broth could be called either delicate or just plain weak. It lacked the depth of flavor and body that makes soup so soul-satisfying. It wasn’t objectionable, it just wasn’t notable. But what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in quantity; servers roam the room with what look like oversized coffee pots, offering to refill the broth in your bowl.
You’ll have more room in that bowl as you start exploring the myriad components of the hot pot. As you dig in, it’s like a treasure hunt. In the kimchi dumpling soup, you first notice the pile of pork on top, but then slowly all the other ingredients come to light: Taiwanese cabbage, kimchi, dumpling, vermicelli, mini sausage, shrimp, enoki mushrooms, kamaboko, tempura, clams, Fuzhou fishball, soft tofu, fried tofu skin, zucchini, imitation crabmeat, scallions, and a poached egg.
Each table sports a condiment caddy with three sauces, a chili oil, garlic soy sauce, and the most pungent of the three, fermented soybean paste. Use them for dipping the meat from your hot pot, or simply add your favorite to the pot.
The menu does offer some add-ons, if you’d like more of a specific ingredient, or want to try one that’s not included in your chosen hot pot. Desserts are simple, but fun, like the neon-colored macaron ice cream sandwiches.
Drinks are of the non-alcoholic variety, but Tasty Pot offers a large selection of interesting tea drinks. Fans of bubble tea can get their fix here, and the orange-hued Thai tea is a great summer cooler.
423 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis
Monday to Thursday, Sunday: 11a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m.