Monday, October 27, 2014

Food & Lib: Shabu Shabu House

It's been awhile since I've written a full Food & Lib post (save a couple of food trucks here and there), and I believe this one has been a long time coming.

Sunday morning, John & I met some friends for the unique dining experience at Shabu Shabu House in the center of Downtown's Little Tokyo. While there are many other Shabu places to be found in the Sawtelle or Sherman Oaks neighborhoods here in Los Angeles, this place is the real deal original. The owner, Yoshi Maruyama, has been welcoming patrons for nearly 20 years in this same location (the first in America, according to Serious Eats), and their formula (i.e. menu) hasn't changed much over that time, either.

Just a little background, for those that maybe aren't familiar with "shabu shabu" (I know I wasn't): shabu-shabu is basically thinly sliced beef cooked quickly in boiling water. Its name comes from the sound it makes swishing through the water, onomatopœia-style. It takes mere seconds to swoosh the meat through the water, rendering it medium rare, and then it's into the sauce (traditionally, ponzu or peanut or another variation), on into the rice and into your mouth.

The first time I sat down for shabu was my third date with John, early last year. The dinner crowd waiting outside was large and overwhelming, and I didn't feel any less overwhelmed sitting down at the busy counter of Shabu Shabu House, the servers piling bowls and plates in front of me with various foods piled high. So much pressure! I didn't even know where to begin!

A couple dining trips (and maybe a heads up on the first one) would serve any patron well. Here's the gist at this Shabu Shabu House, which doesn't pull any punches: the experience is very In, Eat, Pay, Out. This isn't because they're trying to rush you or move you through or interrupt your dining experience. There are just many people waiting to sit where you're sitting.

Our wait for seats on Sunday took just under an hour—and that's with arriving at 11:20 AM, ten minutes before they even open. Lunch hours are 11:30 AM - 2 PM; Dinner hours are 5:30 PM - 9:30 PM, Tues-Sun, and the same rules (for the most part) apply for both:

1. Arrive at least 45 min - 1 hour before you hope to eat
2. If "hope to eat" time is at either opening, arrive at least 30 minutes before opening
3. Sign your name on the sign-up sheet inside (sometimes it's outside on the bench)
4. Be patient; it's worth it

Ordering is probably easier here than at any restaurant in the world. You mark it on the sheet when you sign up, and you have two options: Medium (10 slices) or Large (15 slices)—also the option of extra lean or marbled, but just get the marbled. You'll be glad you did. You get the same rice, veggies/noodles/tofu, and sauces/toppings for both. Oh, and it's cash only, so have a couple twenties on hand.

It sounds like this is some hoity-toity place that makes its customers wait for a mediocre experience, but that's really not the case. The simplicity of Shabu Shabu House is what makes it so special. It's a small joint, with ~26 seats, and in no way fancy. The Prime USDA marbled beef is sliced right in the center of the room, surrounded by happily eating customers—and this meat is the good stuff, better than any other shabu place in Los Angeles (in my humble opinion).

More than anything, it's like a dance. Knowing the steps makes everything move more smoothly and heightens the experience that much more.

I'm sure many people would scoff at the wait time for a seat at this place, but coming from someone who doesn't usually enjoy waiting, it doesn't bother me one bit. The restaurant is located in the Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo, which houses countless shops, restaurants, cafes, dessert counters, and markets. Jot your name down at Shabu Shabu, then take a stroll over to Cafe Dulce for a latte or pastry, or over to Mikawaya Mochi Ice Cream for the yummiest mango mochi bites, only a dollar apiece. And if you have the time (like I did on Sunday) drop into the adorable Hob Nob clothing boutique. But word of advice: do it before you stuff yourself at Shabu Shabu... because you undoubtedly will eat your fill before you've even realized it, and it'll be oh-so-satisfying.

Place:  Shabu Shabu House
Neighborhood:  Little Tokyo / Downtown
Food:  Yes
Full Bar:  No | Japanese beer only

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