News & Reviews
So-So Shabu Shabu: Sampling the Japanese Hot Pot
Article by Becky Grunewald
Photography by Scott Duncan
November 8, 2010
On a slightly chilly spring evening a few years ago, while visiting Tokyo, my friends and I were casting
about for a place to eat dinner. On that day we had ventured to a nearby town famous for its giant stone
Buddha and its temple. We had had a blast, snacking on fried octopus balls and scampering over hill and
dale, but upon our return to the city, we were weary, and the four of us had settled into a glum silence
interspersed with tense bickering as we traipsed the street on aching feet.
The shabu shabu restaurant we chose was warm and steamy inside. Soon our Japanese host was showing us the
ropes of this DIY meal and we were happily toasting with sake and beer. A crowd of loud salarymen in grey
suits was getting trashed at a table near us, and noxious clouds of cigarette smoke wafted over. We called
for tray after tray of meat and ladled out fat noodles, slurping and dipping and crunching until our hunger
was sated, and then heading out into the glittering Tokyo night to start the long train ride back to where
we were staying.
That is the kind of anecdote that food writers live for. It's got it all: I can imply I'm very familiar
with Japan (even though I've only visited Tokyo once for a little more than a week) and it ups my cred so
I can pass judgement on the "authenticity" of Japanese cuisine. So, when two shabu shabu spots opened up in
Sacramento in the last year, I knew I would review them, with the added bonus of dusting off the aforementioned
little nugget. I figured one restaurant would be good, one would be bad (or at least not as good), and boom!-the
article would practically write itself. This is how the sausage is made, people.
The reality wasn't quite that simple.
Shabu Japanese Fondue (1730 16th Street) was the first all-shabu shabu restaurant to open in Sacramento, and
the first I visited. It's going for sleek and modern with the decor, including two large flatscreen TVs featured
prominently behind the bar. All the tables were taken when I arrived, so I was offered a seat at the bar, directly
in front of a TV, which was so hi def that I could see the sweat collecting in the folds of Mario Lopez' neck.
Throughout the dinner I struggled to look away, but millions of years of evolution have assured that my eyes were
drawn to movement.
For the uninitiated, shabu shabu is an interactive meal, much like fondue, in which the shabu-er boils or dips
various items - meat or veg - in a boiling pot of broth that forms the centerpiece of the table. The diner chooses
the type of broth, from a selection that usually includes miso and shoyu, and meat is served thinly sliced, for quick cooking.
At Shabu Japanese Fondue, I chose the chicken and beef from a short selection of meats. A tray of tofu, fat noodles,
napa cabbage, and enoki mushrooms soon arrived, sans instructions from the server. I tentatively began to add items to the
boiling spicy miso broth and fished from them with my chopsticks. It was especially difficult to wrangle the noodles, and I
ended up flinging boiling broth all about. The "spicy" in the wan miso broth was furnished by dry red pepper flakes. I
accidentally consumed most of them one fiery gulp before they had a chance to impart any heat to the broth.
The largely absent server finally dropped off the thinly shaved meat, along with ponzu and goma (sesame seed) dipping sauces.
The chicken breast meat was a bit dry but improved when dipped; the beef had a good flavor but sported a steely band of
inedible connective tissue running through each slice.
The broth eventually boiled down enough to concentrate it and render it tastier, but at that point I was out of meat and
bored with eating napa cabbage. Overall, the experience was pleasant, the food was healthful, the bill was reasonable. [...]
In the end, [...] I don't particularly recall the food at that remembered spot in Tokyo; I remember the conviviality, the toasts
of "kampai!" as we drank, the warmth of the bubbling pot that curled my hair and stayed with me as we walked toward the subway.
In plain English: go with a group of friends and keep the meat and sake flowing.