Down the Hatch

Smelly tofu and other quirky traditional Chinese pleasures.

When something on my plate smells bad—a piece of fish, for example—it's my job to tell you, the reader, not to order it. Yet after visiting the 18-month-old Lake City outpost of Chiang's Gourmet, a Chinese standby in Renton for over a decade, I'm going to recommend a tofu dish that reeks to high heaven. It's just one of several dozen intriguing creations on an authentic menu that'll knock the socks off anyone who still thinks of egg rolls and fried rice as "real" Chinese food. When you enter Chiang's, two things hit you at once: It's warm and it's packed. Once you're inside, the exceedingly friendly manager, Mabel, may chat you up. She may also, upon being asked her name, refer to herself as "Sexy Li." Do not be alarmed. Mabel is likely to become your closest ally in the struggle to choose just a few dishes off Chiang's massive menu—or menus, since one lists Chinese-American inventions like egg foo yong, while another teems with traditional Chinese dishes. My friends and I recently ordered entirely off the latter, and I suggest you do the same. We started with an appetizer of jellyfish ($5.95) served in a light vinegar dressing and garnished with fresh cilantro. The fish came in strands that looked like glass noodles and had a crunchy texture recalling Japanese seaweed salad. Its barely perceptible ocean flavor blended beautifully with the tart vinegar and the cilantro. Soon the fish had a tablemate: seaweed soup ($7.95), a rich broth filled with pork and dark green seaweed. We also had a dish of green beans ($7.95) with soy-almond paste and chunks of pork. The blanched beans retained their crispness; their sweet flavor nicely complemented the salty paste and the pork. Though we avoided some of the menu's wilder routes (pig intestine, blood cake, beef tripe, braised pig feet), we agreed that "tofu of strong odor" ($5.95 fried, $6.45 steamed) had piqued our curiosity. We had to know: what odor? And how strong? One companion described the aroma as "musky"; that's a nice way of putting it. Chiang's serves the big, golden, pillowy cubes of tofu, whose texture is at least half the reason to order them, with a soy-garlic sauce that cuts the smell. The dish also comes with kimchee, an incongruous Korean touch on a menu that's otherwise almost entirely Chinese. The spiciness of the pickled cabbage, like the saltiness of the garlic sauce, helps reduce the tofu's stench. (Chiang's buys the stinky bean curd at the 99 Ranch Market, an Asian grocery in Kent's Great Wall Shopping Mall.) Mabel encouraged us to eat up, since we couldn't take it home. (It smells even worse after it's gone cold.) A bit of subsequent research revealed that cho do fu, literally "smelly tofu," is a popular street food in Shanghai. An extended soak in fish brine is what causes the aroma, often described as a cross between organic decay and a recently used commode. Smelly tofu aside, the centerpiece of our meal was a splendid seafood hot pot ($16.95). Brimming with crab, mussels, white fish, eel, button mushrooms, and napa cabbage, it looked unreal, like a manipulated image from a high-gloss cooking magazine. Bright red like cioppino but lacking its tomato base (the color derives from chili peppers), the hot pot, which arrived still bubbling, was spicy enough to accent the flavor of the fish, but not enough to wring tears from our eyes. One of my friends was heading to Peru the next morning; this was her farewell meal. Mabel told her which dish would travel best: the green beans. We left the restaurant promising Mabel we'd return for dim sum; in our bags and boxes was enough food to fuel another small feast. Despite her earlier admonition, Mabel had even included the unfinished smelly tofu, which made itself known on the way home through its less-than-airtight box. Even if I'd have to hold my nose as I polished it off the next day, it was nice to know she cared. Chiang's Gourmet, 7845 Lake City Way N.E., 206-527-8888, LAKE CITY. 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Mon.–Thurs.; 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Fri.; 10:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Sat.; 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Sun.

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