So-So Shabu Shabu

Posted on November 8, 2010 – 1:43 AM | by OldManFoster
  • Share

Becky Grunewald  Photos by Scott Duncan

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 temples.  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 that 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 are 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 for 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.  I looked forward to judging it against Heat Shabu Baru, which has a heaping helping of Yelp hype.

Heat Shabu Baru (2416 18th Street) was the second all-shabu shabu restaurant in Sacramento, and the second 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 (are you sensing a pattern here?). This time I declined and waited for a table to open up.  I scanned the drink menu, and asked for hot sake, seeing none.  “I could microwave it for you, it’s what other restaurants do”, the bartender replied somewhat sassily.  That punctured the illusion, so I ordered a Kirin and sipped to the demonically perky strains of Katy Perry.  A table of fifteen in the corner was clearly getting their all-you-can-drink on; slurred toasting was rampant, despite the early hour.

The cutesy descriptions on the menu (albacore sashimi – better than sex!!) concerned me, as did the increasingly loud club jamz, but I soldiered on and ordered the beef and lamb – the only two options on the menu.  This is somewhat odd, as lamb is not a meat commonly associated with shabu shabu, and had also featured prominently on the Shabu Japanese Fondue menu.

This time the server was more helpful and inquired, “Have you ever shabu’ed?”  She set my spicy miso broth a-boiling and brought out the now-familiar assortment of veggies and tofu, and thin, ramen-style noodles.  This time the heat came from sliced chilies, and the broth had a deeper miso flavor.  A wire basket for fishing out vegetables came in handy, but I lacked a ladle, and the bowls were shallow and square, which rendered them almost useless.  One would have to combine the implements from both restaurants-the ladle and logically shaped bowl from Shabu Japanese Fondue and the basket at HSB – to assemble a perfect set.

The American kobe beef was indeed succulent and tender, as had been promised on Yelp, but this time it was the lamb that seized up with gristle when cooked and even contained a bonus bone sliver in every bite.  I was somewhat incensed that I had been served basically inedible meat at both shabu shabu places, and the fact that I was listening to “California Gurls” for the second time since I had arrived at HSB – this time louder – only angered me more.

The table in the corner just got rowdier and rowdier.  Pictures were being snapped all around, peace signs were flashed, a camera was dropped, sake was spilled.  I had the beginnings of a headache, helped along by the fishbowl-sized serving of house sake.

I finished with the included dessert – smooth green tea ice cream with fun soft pieces of strawberry mochi – and fled the restaurant on my bike, praying that no one in that party was driving home.

In the end, I concluded that what was missing for me at both Sacramento shabu shabu restaurants was as much my fault as theirs.  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.


Tags: , ,

  1. 2 Responses to “So-So Shabu Shabu”

  2. avatar

    By Tom Q on Dec 1, 2010 | Reply

    Since Zen Toro headed west to Davis, there isn’t a decent Japanese restaurant in Sacramento, period. Virtually none of these places are in fact owned by Japanese and the food certainly shows it.

    After 20 years in Tokyo announcing and writing for NHK and Radio Japan and teaching at university, I returned in 2008. I deeply miss my adopted country and especially Japanese food.

    Shabu-Shabu is beef, period. Anything else is just plain wrong. A good shabu-shabu-ya will have cool jazz in the background played quietly; the drink of choice will be a first round of draft Yebisu beer followed by either a jun mai ginjo Nihonshu (sake) or Kyushu-derived shochu. As far as the broth, you don’t want too much flavor form it; you want the beef flavor to shine through the various dipping sauces.

    Buy a bento at Oto-san’s on Freeport if you want authentic Japanese food. They also have a great nihonshu there – it’s in an ishobin with pink flowers on the front – forgot the name). Put it in the fridge for a while and for $27 bucks and a you will have the true flavor of Japan.

  3. avatar

    By Tom Q on Dec 1, 2010 | Reply

    From, not form… I’m going blind…

Post a Comment