They are new and still building a customer base. Once Shabu on Fire fills up it will be the new place to eat on Main St. Huntington Beach.
I have to admit, when I agreed to review Shabu on Fire I had no idea what to expect. I had heard the name quite a few times but for some reason had never checked it out (much to the dismay of my friends.) I’m from Huntington Beach, and whenever anyone finds out you live in Orange County but haven’t been to Shabu, the reactions are reminiscent of Californians discovering someone from Minnesota has never tried In N Out.
The best way to prime yourself for the experience is to simply go off of name alone. Letting the name “Shabu on Fire” marinate in your imagination will be the best preparation for what to expect, but you’ll still be shocked. As I did not know that trick to prepare myself, I tried all of my best methods for getting my bearings in a restaurant: music, decor, layout, tagline, and menu…to no avail.
Their tagline is “Asian fondue.”
No way! Now that I’ve been there, I see where they could have gotten it. But the word “fondue,” to my ears, conjures creamy, rich, and a hint of guilty pleasure.
What I received instead was earthy, deep, and with layers of flavors woven together like soap bubbles — try too hard to pin them down, and watch them dance away.
Perhaps this opacity is intentional. If it is, it’s genius, because each new diner is delivered to Shabu on Fire’s door having no idea what to expect.
I entered Shabu to see my only seating option be at one of two enormous semi-circular countertops that encircled my server Phil, who was bustling about from diner to diner.
It was family style done well, which is not something I see often. Privacy was implicit and respected. Yet, there was a sense of camaraderie and comfort shared amongst those around you, a comfort cultivated by Phil.
I looked at the menu, and apart from beef (especially wagyu), it was surprisingly affordable. Their appetizer menu stuck primarily to the mainstays you find on the menus of Japanese restaurants for American audiences: edamame, miso, softshell crab, seaweed salad, etc… I got the impression that the appetizers, salads, and even the rice dishes were only on the menu because they had to be. They weren’t the reason to come to Shabu on Fire, and I passed by them with barely a glance because they weren’t the reason I was there either.
I ordered the three-item combo, and chose pork, beef (which costs $3 extra), and salmon. One of the best ways to determine a restaurant’s level of quality is by how they cook their fish, so I try to fit it in at any restaurant I review. I still had no idea what I was in for, and at this point found myself a bit confused! What could “Asian fondue” mean?
Dishes began to arrive from the kitchen. First, a plate of vegetables: spinach, cabbage, carrot, shiitake mushroom, and broccoli, with thick uncooked noodles to the side. Next, a bowl of rice, ending with one of the most gorgeous plates of meat I’ve ever seen. Beautifully marbled beef, sliced so thinly you could easily see through it; delicate pieces of pork, each one ensconced with a respectable lining of fat. And of course, thick, luscious chunks of salmon, so obviously creamy with fat that I wanted to eat them all right there, no cooking involved. Sure enough, Shabu on Fire did not disappoint my rule about fish: Tim told me casually while introducing the meat, “And the salmon is sushi grade, so feel free to eat it just like that (in fact, it’s recommended.)” I wasted no time in obliging. Any restaurant so dedicated to quality that they serve sushi-grade salmon for a dish where the fish is generally cooked earns a lot of respect in my book.
Shabu on Fire is famous for their soup. Basically, you start with a broth base, cook things in the order that is required for them to cook fully (corn first, because “it takes forever,” and beef needs only two seconds swirled in the broth to be a perfect medium-rare. At the end, you have whatever leftover meats and vegetables you didn’t eat and you add the noodles. The result is poured from the hot pot used for tableside assembly into a bowl, to be eaten as soup. While some diners apparently opt out of the soup part (that gave me the second largest double-take of the night), it is the exquisite layers present in the soup that make this restaurant stand out even in the middle of Huntington Beach’s Main Street.
The largest shock of the evening came while I watched Phil make the broth base by hand and eye. It happened at the beginning, and so quickly I barely even caught it from the corner of my eye, but it did indeed happen! There was water already present in the cooking vessel, to which he added hearty splashes of what I can only guess were miso, soy, and something like fish sauce. A few spoonfuls of minced garlic and green onion, and those are the only ingredients I remember going into a broth that competes for some of the most flavorful I’ve had. I’m still in awe over how he did it, but I knew that it was the type of thing that would be impossible to describe. It came naturally to him, as naturally as turning a doorknob.
Given how (truly) complicated the process is, you’d think it may be intimidating, yet somehow it isn’t. I’ll credit that to the servers, who spend an impressive amount of time with new diners to introduce the concept and guide them through the process. My dinner came out to be $23, which is shockingly affordable given how much time Phil spent curating my dish, all of the top-shelf ingredients, and the fact that the entire dining experience takes over a full hour.
It’s a good sign when you can’t pin down the clientele of a restaurant. To my left sat a middle-aged couple, one of whom I can guarantee is never as boisterous in his daily life as he was when smacking his lips in satiety from his meal. On my right was a girl who had just graduated from college and two of her younger brothers, both avid surfers. All age ranges and socioeconomic strata were present, and for all of them, the food was the star. “Hunkering down” is the best way to describe how one eats a dish at Shabu on Fire, and put simply, that’s how food should be!
There’s some decor, and there’s a TV for those who want to watch the game, but both are afterthoughts. The music played in the background is a playlist you’d imagine at a 2002 middle school dance — in other words, the best music, but as with everything else, low-maintenance. No one is coming to Shabu on Fire to be seen, or because of the scene, they’re coming for the food. One specific food in particular: shabu shabu.
Shabu on Fire teaches you a new kind of dining experience. It’s interactive, dynamic, and sociable, but it also requires a great deal of attention be paid to both the process and each bite; if you don’t, you will miss something, and you’d be missing something great.