San Francisco-Style Shabu Shabu: Not Quite Japanese

Categories: 'Eat'

Melissa Barnes
Is this Japanese shabu shabu or Chinese hot pot? Kind of both.
​Every time I drive around the Richmond and Sunset, I pass at least one restaurant advertising shabu shabu, the Japanese hot pot in which you swish-swish (shabu-shabu) pieces of thinly sliced meat through a hot broth so they cook in a second or two. In addition to the full-service restaurants, the specialty shabu shabu houses have grown profligate: Shabu House, Shabu Pub, Shabu Lounge, Prime Rib Shabu, G Cube Cafe.

But when I embarked on a survey of these new restaurants for this week's full-length restaurant review, the first meal I sat down for presented me with a surprise: gingery broths, spicy peanut sauce for dipping, uncommon meats such as pork and lamb. And was that Taiwanese shacha sauce in the condiment jar? Yes it was.

Most of the new shabu houses, it turns out, are owned by Chinese Americans, and the San Francisco-style shabu shabu they're serving is rife with Chinese influences. Which is sort of appropriate, since shabu shabu became popular in Japan in the 1950s -- as a Japanese interpretation of Mongolian hot pot.

My favorite of the four S.F. shabu restaurants I ate at was Prime Rib Shabu House, Luke Sung and Patrick Wong's two-year-old place on Fifth Avenue and Clement. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed for disability-access-related renovations just as the article was going to press -- the photographer we'd sent out spotted the sign -- and so this week's review covers two newer shabu restaurants mining the trend. Read it here.

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You're right. Much of the Shabu restaurants out there are closer to Chinese hot pot style. The most authentic Japanese version is Cafe Mums in J-town where they use plain boiled water.  The broth is enriched and flavored after so many dunkings of meat and vegies.  But the first 30 min of shabu'ing, the meat comes out really bland! The sauces help, but if your meat already comes out dripping with hot chili miso broth, I can see why most Shabu joints abandon the water base.  Shabu House is my favorite in the city.

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