It's downright heartening when a restaurant is willing to hand you your own ass in a stainless-steel bowl.
In keeping with its eponymous pepper-bathed region of China, soup spot Chongqing Huo Guo doesn't dull its spicy broth for Western palates. Portland is crazy for hot pot lately, and unlike the much more mild-mannered Beijing Hot Pot down the street, Chongqing will cheerfully stuff your sinuses with Sichuan pepper and chili oil until you look like you're suffering the symptoms of tropical disease. Still, the best part of the spicy broth isn't even the fire; it's the herbal aromatics ranging from lotus seed to figgy jujube that deepen the soup's flavor.
The city of Chongqing claims to be the birthplace of hot pot, a simple Chinese cuisine every bit as modular and humble as an omelet. First, choose a broth—spicy, mild or seafood—and then order an array of a la carte raw vegetables, noodles and meats to cook in the soup, on a hot plate set down on your table.
At Chongqing, the broth will run you a mere $2.99 a person—and it refills endlessly tableside—but each ingredient might run anywhere from $3.55 for some pork skins or $13.99 for Kobe beef (don't bother, seriously). Veggies are uniformly between $3 and $5, including terrific enoki, shiitake or oyster mushrooms. There will be a mighty temptation to over-order; hold back, and don't get more than two or three items per person. A pair will be well-served with two meats, a noodle, a green such as bok choy, and a mushroom. Dumplings are a bonus, like the prize in your Cracker Jack box.
It's a sloppy, slurpy, casual meal that nonetheless can last as long as a multicourse tasting menu—especially if you add ingredients a few at a time to avoid overcooking, and then experiment with different flavor combinations.
Chongqing's mild broth is light and nutty, while the spicy stuff is demanding on the palate—making the best option the yuanyang bowl, which has both spicy and mild broths partitioned in the middle like a black-and-white cookie. You can mix the two to modulate spice, sure, but the better option is to treat them like two separate bowls of soup, since staff will refill your broth right in the hot pot. One side might be light dumplings, the other spicy and fatty pork belly. You can't lose.
But let's be clear: You can't win either. You're paying a little extra to prepare your own food, which is likely less efficient for everybody. But efficiency isn't the point. Hot pot is a social experience and novelty food—something to do, really. Consider it both dinner and a hobby at the same time.
EAT: Chongqinq Huo Guo, 8230 SE Harrison St., Suite 315, 971-803-7999. 11 am-10 pm daily.