Those unfamiliar with the concept of shabu-shabu restaurants may be taken aback at first by the prospect of cooking their own food; isn't that why people dine out? But at Cal Shabu of Costa Mesa, new diners soon discover that the concept isn't just tasty but fun, too, as they cook their food for a few seconds in a simmering, seasoned broth and dip it in a sauce of their liking. As owner Leonard Chan explains, patrons soon find themselves "swishing" and smiling in no time.
"Having our guests' bellies stuffed and a smile on their face is what inspires our team to provide the best possible service once our doors are open," he says. "We love the interaction with everyone that comes in, hence why our entire space is bar style seating. It encourages our guests to mingle with the people sitting next to them as well as our staff."
Shabu-shabu is a Japanese expression that literally translates to "swish swish" in English even though the practice of cooking thinly sliced meat and vegetables originated in Mongolia, where warriors used their metal helmets as cooking pots. "Meat and vegetables were sliced up thin so that the cooking time would be quick to save on precious resources," says Chan. "From there, hot pot traveled through China, then the rest of the far east before it made it's way to the Western world and evolved into fondue."
At Cal Shabu, diners can choose from several fresh proteins (beef, chicken, pork, and seafood), veggies (Napa cabbage, spinach, assorted mushrooms, carrots, and more) and sauces (a citrus-based Ponzu and creamy toasted sesame sauce called Goma) in creating their dining experience. All meals also come with noodles and tofu, and sauces may be enhanced with Daikon radish, garlic, and green onions. Chan says guests are particular fond of the restaurant's "nuclear spicy hot drops" made from ghost pepper extract to add a little heat to their sauces.
Not only is the experience customizable and interactive, the menu choices are relatively healthy and low in fat and calories. Chan says he only uses the freshest ingredients, with deliveries being made six days a week.
The restaurant also serves an assortment of sake, Japanese and domestic beer, wine, and shochu- a traditional Japanese hard liquor. The walls are covered with the work of local artists, and the atmosphere is upbeat, modern, and definitely welcoming. "Fun music is pumping through our speakers, art is rotated constantly, our team is always chatting things up with our guests, and of course there is a lot of cheering going on?'Kanpai!'," says Chan. "We are super fortunate to have so many regulars day in and day out. Many of our guests have become close friends."
The Costa Mesa location is actually the second Cal Shabu location for Chan; the original restaurant is still located in Fountain Valley. For first-time diners, Chan has a recommendation: the Prime beef. "It's just the perfect balance of taste, marbling, and tenderness," he says. "I like my steaks medium rare, so I swish my slices in for only about two to three seconds."
Photo Credit: Monolith