California Shabu Shabu - Costa Mesa
Timely. That's me. Last week I reviewed a restaurant that closed for good the day before I wrote about it. This week, I went to a shabu shabu restaurant in the thick heat of August. A few seconds outside induces instant flop sweat, and here I am, eating from a boiling pot inches away from my face.
Coincidentally, the last shabu shabu meal I had was around this time last year. The weather was just as scorching then as it is now. Either I'm a proverbial glutton for punishment, or just prone to predictable patterns of behavior.
This year's unseasonal craving took me to the new outpost of California Shabu Shabu in Costa Mesa, which recently opened after a year of delays and hilarious misunderstandings with the Costa Mesa Police Department.
But surprisingly, I wasn't the only one who thought eating shabu shabu in summer was a good idea. It was past 1 p.m. on a Sunday, yet every seat was occupied (picture below was taken minutes before a large crowd arrived). Each diner sat facing gurgling cooking vessels, swishing thin slices of meat in steaming liquid, and slurping hot soup.
Looking around the room, it also occurred to me that no one seemed to be over thirty. Most of the customers were at that enviable age when incomes are disposable and the world's frivolous pleasures are a credit card swipe away. Ah, to be in that sweet-spot between college and real life; a time when you are responsible for nothing but yourself.
Other folks with oppressive mortgages, kids to feed, or are otherwise resistant to paying any amount of money for a lunch that you have to cook yourself, would be less keen on what California Shabu Shabu, and other restaurants of its ilk, has to offer.
The lunch prices hover in the ten to twelve dollar range for a standard plate of tissue-thin raw meat. More if you opt for more premium cuts. The Kobe beef breaks the bank and gets the creditors calling. There's no need for the fancy stuff anyway; all grades of beef are well-marbled and designed so that each slice disintegrates into a mouthful of beefy tenderness.
Surprisingly, I was stuck on California Shabu Shabu's rice. It's fluffy, perfectly cooked, and fragrant -- ideal for sopping up the sauce that dribbles from the boiled meats after it soaks in ponzu. And somewhere during the cooking process, Leonard, the young owner and his equally young staff, goes around the room with an eye dropper containing some sort of concentrated capsicum extract.
I asked how hot it was and our female server said "not very". So I requested for three minuscule drops to be dripped into my ponzu sauce. I swirled around a piece of meat in the slurry, ate it, and almost immediately, my whole head started gushing sweat from every pore. My hands tried to vainly fan out the fire that now burned white-hot in every millimeter of my mouth. I looked like a panting dog. Seeing I was in pain, Leonard gave me a new bowl of ponzu.
At the end of the meal, they offered everyone a spoonful of soup base to flavorize* the cooking broth. It's for making noodle soup, you see. Normally, at other shabu shabu joints, I make do with some improvised combo of soy sauce, garlic and vinegar. This was a nice gesture.
But as I ladled the roiling soup into my bowl and took my first scalding sip, I realized that it was still friggin' summer outside. Check back here same time next year for my next shabu shabu outing.
California Shabu Shabu
801 Baker Street Suite A
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
*Not a real word, but I'm using it anyway.
THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Andrei's Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails - Irvine