Sunday, August 02, 2009

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
(714) 540-1888
801 Baker Street Suite A
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

*Not a real word, but I'm using it anyway.

Andrei's Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails - Irvine


At 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

elmo, is this the same California shabu shabu with the one on fountain valley?

At 9:58 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Yes, it's the second location of the one in Fountain Valley.

This one's next door to Shark Club, which explains a lot about how the young people are already all over it.

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Melissa said...

Next door to Shark Club? Ew. Sorry, I'm old haha.

You know me though. I'm intrigued by the droplets of capsicum. Hm. :)

At 5:02 PM, Blogger joanh said...

hahah.. i'm always eating shabu shabu or mala hotpot in summer too.. it seems like it would be too hot to do so, but it's so good!

At 11:29 PM, Blogger EatTravelEat said...

Capsicum extract? I have never seen or heard about that at a shabu shabu restaurant before. I wonder how and where they get that!

At 7:25 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Way too hot here for shabu shabu...
We are on our way to 37+ days of 100 degrees with no rain in sight.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


HA! I'm with ya on Shark Club. It is yet another reason I know I'm no longer young.


Thank goodness for air conditioning systems!

Eat Travel Eat,

I'm wondering that myself. I did a Google search of it, and they do sell similar items here and there, but this one had an Asian-y and slightly tart vinegar taste to it.


It's in the high 80s today...and I think I'll have a tuna sandwich for lunch.

At 3:34 PM, Blogger A said...

Thanks! Glad some shabu shabu opened a little closer! I love the hot part:)

At 9:13 PM, Anonymous white on rice couple said...

It's open already? Wow, thanks elmomonster! It's great to have you keeping us updated on stuff like this.
Time to head on over there for dinner and then a serious game of billards over at the Shark Club. See ya there!?

At 11:05 PM, Blogger edjusted said...

I'm not sure how the capsicum droplets came about, but the FV location used to have a bottle of Dave's Insanity Sauce handy for anyone brave enough to stomach it. Maybe they decided to up it a notch?

As much as I like CA shabu shabu, it's just too darn hot for shabu now. :P

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Miranda said...

Wow...this is beautiful.

I would love to be Cali for some Shabu Shabu.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

There is a sweetness to eating hot food on a hot day--just look at what they're munching on in the perennial humid countries!

However, a cool glass of chilled sake usually takes the edge off. Or beer. Or iced water if you must return somewhere non-inebriated.

I hope you will be back to this fine establishment before the year is over, and many times.

Me, I can't get enough and I'm lucky my brother owns the joint!

At 8:24 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


You can have your hot two ways here. Be careful: both kinds will singe your tongue like nobody's business!

White on Rice Couple,

AH! I feel too old for Shark Club! I threw my back out for the first time time week (hence the late replies here). I'm not even kidding. I walk around now with the fortitude of a 70 year old retiree.


Yep, the stuff in those medicine droppers are lethal. I am not sure if it is pure capsicum extract, but it's definitely concentrated, hence the droppers. Three droplets and I was in friggin' agony!


Year round Shabu Shabu might be best in Alaska! Of course, there you'd have moose meat or something!


Say "Hey" to you bro for me. I already told Ash that they haven't got me pegged. The guy they thought was elmomonster wasn't elmomonster! HAHA!

You've got a good point with hot/hot tasting food being popular in Asian tropical climates. Heck, I think that's the point of of spicy food -- to make one sweat so that one can cool down. Counter intuitive, but I don't argue with tradition!


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