Interactive. It is a word that has become very common these days. One of the best uses of it is in the phrase, “interactive dining experience”. These days, good food is only part of the experience. Service, certainly. But the majority of diners these days are looking for a fun experience. Something not just served to eat, but a dining experience where you participate in the prep of your meal, as well as sharing and comparing. One of the best examples of this is shabu shabu. It is a Japanese expression that means “swish swish”, describing the way you actually cook your meal. It’s fun for two, and much more fun for four. And as at a sushi bar, there are regular conversations about what the person next to you is having, the sauce they like, the sake……..and they might be with someone you’ve never met.
Southern California has several of them, concentrated mainly in Gardena, Little Tokyo and Orange County. I've been to several and they each offer a slightly different experience. For the ultimate experience, however, I keep going back to Shabu Shabu Bar in Tustin. Located in a large strip mall, the place catches your eye as you drive up.
It is good to show up early, because even with two huge bars inside, there is still usually a wait at dinner hour. With that comes a warning-----this is not a fast meal. It’s a time to have fun, savor good food, visit with friends, try some new things and laugh with everyone. This is an exceedingly popular place, and with good reason. There is great food, a lively crowd and lots of excitement in the air.
We showed up around 5:30 on Friday evening. We were promptly greeted and led to our friends who had already arrived. This was a chance to teach some newbies of the hoys of shabu shabu. They had already ordered their sake. Shabu Shabu Bar has a whole sake book, from ten dollars for a carafe of cold sake up to $145.00 for the super-premiums. Cries of “Kampai” (cheers) and other toasts and we were on our way.
When you sit down, you notice several things. Two dry bowls, one empty and the other with black and while sesame seeds and a pestle so you can grind them as finely as you like (I’m a texture kinda guy and just give them enough grinding to release the oils in the seed). Right in front of you is also a hot pot filled with boiling water.
Your shabu shabu chef fills the empty bowl with ponzu, a lemon and soy based sauce. The sesame bowl gets their house-made shaubu shabu sauce, a thick rich sesame paste and soy dipping sauce that the blending with the seeds makes your own. But wait! You can add to either sauce some extremely hot Japanese pepper drops. A more mild shaken condiment with Japanese and shisito peppers mixed with ginger and seaweed. And each pair of seats has between then a little condiment dish filled with scallions and crushed garlic, ready to bring it the sauces up to your taste. This is definitely the land of “Have it your way".
We proceeded to order some appetizers. Perfectly fried gyoza dumplings came first with a nice dipping sauce.
We also ordered a large steamed edamame, the soybeans not only dusted with the usual salt but slso some hot chili powder that definitely took it to the next level. They went great with the two orders of sake that we shared. As opposed to sushi bars, most of the sake here is ice cold. It’s very refreshing and very sippable.
As with many places like this, it’s a golden opportunity to try different things.
I ordered the platter consisting of thinly sliced prime beef with some awesome Kurobata pork.
Two of my companions ordered the beef and shrimp combo, with the rib eye beef and gorgeous fresh shrimp.
The other one ordered the chicken platter.
Mind you, these are not cooked yet. You will be the cook. My prime beef had some amazing marbling in it.
The shrimp looked delicious too as did the chicken. Overall,the choices run from ribeye steak for $17.99 to prime steak, progressing upwards until you get to the true Wagyu beef for $145.00. Oh, I do want to try that ome day!
Our veggies cane first. Some sliced Nappa Cabbage, carrot, onion, spinach, tofu with a different type of Japanese seaweed on it and even some carrot. There was a gorgeous spiral-cut mushroom cap and decoratively sliced scallion. Also on the platter were fresh udon noodles, not to be touched until the end.
The harder veggies such as carrot and some of the cabbage pieces went in first. After a few minutes in the “Jacuzzi” some of the cabbage pieces could come out, ready to be dipped in one of the two cool sauces depending on your tastes. I enjoy interchanging them. There was also a choice of white or brown rice with the meal. I’ve seen shabu bars where you are pretty much left on your own, but here the shabu shabu chefs make sure that you know how to do it. They help you with the sauces, suggest which sauces go with which meat and vegetablesnand generally made th novices in our party feel comfortable as they learned how to “shabu shabu”.
The meat platters showed up after we had started the veggies. This is really where “swish swish” comes. In. You don’t want to overcook the beef, fish, chicken or shrimp. You take a piece, swish it in the broth, and when it’s done to your liking, into a sauce and then your mouth.
This is where it really gets fun, trying your neighbor’s shrimp or giving a piece of pork to someone you don’t know.
You can make your sauce spicy, garlicky or plain. It’s your choice! Just keep dipping, swishing and eating. Eventually you’ll only have the noodles left.
Well, you’re sitting back, pleasantly stuffed. No room in the belly. And then the shabu shabu chef asks if you are ready for the soup!
This is where the chef again shows their expertise. They take your noodles and cook them in what has become a rich broth from your meat and veggies. Some spices and special sauces are added. Soon, you are presented with a bowl with a delicious udon soup. Your mind tells you that you are too full for it, but as soon as you take the first sip, all is forgotten.
Every bit of soup disappears, seasoned to perfection.
Your shabu shabu experience is over. At least until the next time!
As we laughed, and walked towards to front door, we wove our way through a large crowd , waiting on a rainy night to get in. It was a perfect evening for shabu shabu.
And when you have that craving, there is no finer place than the Shabu Shabu Bar in Tustin.
Shabu Shabu Bar
1945 E 17th St, Santa Ana, CA 92705-8603
(714) 954-0332 www.shabushabubar.com