This tale begins with a trip with my spouse into north Austin to buy a bicycle. Although the story has roots further back, for me…
A spring sale at Performance Bicycles had my wife looking to buy her dream bike for well less than list. Their closest outlet to us is on Anderson Lane, less than twenty minutes away. When we got there, PJ got good news. And bad. Yes, they had the bike she wanted, at a great price. However, they’d just sold the last one that was assembled. Their master builder would have to get one out of the box, put it together and tune it up. Could we return in an hour or so?
Paula Pooh put a happy face on it, though I could tell she was disappointed that she wasn’t riding out on her new, red wheels. It was lunchtime, though, and the immediate area offers plenty of options for grazing. I mentioned that there was a “new” shop (meaning we’d not eaten there) just around the corner: Shabu Hot Pot & Noodle Bar. We moseyed over and peeked in; almost empty, and inviting.
Shabu is a special project of three Austin chefs: George Chen of Chen’s Noodle House, Johnson Ngo (GM) of Musashino Sushi Dokoro, and Henry Wong of Mikado Ryotei. Indeed, the current location of Shabu carried Chen’s name for a short while. This restaurant isn’t large, and is sparkling-clean and a bit edgy. The décor is understated Asian, in the modern style. There is plenty of wood, chrome, and black trim. Given the ritzy feel of the dining space, I was concerned we were seriously under-dressed; I’d somehow left my tux at home, and PJ certainly wasn’t wearing an off-the-shoulder evening gown. We were welcomed smoothly in any case. (At least I had my shoelaces tied.) Typically Austin, the other diners were all dressed in Saturday-casual, chosen for comfort in the warm, humid weather.
We were seated near the east windows, and our servers (yes, two!) appeared quickly and introduced themselves. All the wait staff were smartly dressed, in black and white; no wrinkles, all smiles. Okay, we were clearly underdressed. However, you couldn’t tell from the warm welcomes we received. I relaxed and looked over the hot-pot offerings.
This is when I had the flashbacks: Shabu-Shabu and noodle joints all over Asia, from Dalian, Tianjin and Shanghai to Guanzhou, Shenzen, Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore. Always before, I had hot-pot meals with friends and business associates in seamy, hole-in-the-wall locations, some of which I’m sure were unregulated locally. It didn’t matter, the food was always tasty. Contrary to the experiences of other travelers, I never got a bad meal, and I never had tummy troubles from eating shabu-shabu in these places. (One eatery is pictured above and below; a converted garden nursery in the mountains of Taiwan, consisting of plastic walls and roof, with the occasional tarp to block holes.)
However, Shabu isn’t anything like those places, with one notable exception: The food’s excellent.
The founders of Shabu and their executive chefs have chosen both classical and modern dishes from China, Japan and elsewhere in eastern Asia. Shabu-shabu apparently has a Japanese origin, though I’ve never eaten the dish there. I always assumed hot-pot meals were thoroughly Chinese in nature; already I was getting an education about something I was sure I understood. Appetizer offerings include dumplings (gyoza in Japan, jiaozi in China), tempura-fried crab, lamb skewers, shrimp make, crepes and stuffed jalapeños (the Texas influence). Besides hot-pot, Shabu offers noodles in broth, wok-fried noodle dishes, and interesting sweets for afters.
PJ and I enjoy a variety of noodle dishes that have Asian origins, though I mostly favor pho and she prefers Vietnamese vermicelli plates. Shabu’s noodle offerings generally aren’t like these, though. There are plenty of seafood choices, with examples that include pork, beef or chicken. Lots of tasty bits for every palate. I think I’ll plump for the Singapore flat noodles next time, or the crisp-fried chicken.
This time, though, it was all about the hot-pot.
Shabu-Shabu starts with a pot of boiling broth in the center of the table, kept warm with gas, canned heat (jellied alcohol), or electricity. Since PJ hadn’t ever had this sort of meal before, we asked for samples of the broths. I wasn’t used to having a choice, actually; the places I’ve visited, you got whatever the broth was that day. At Shabu, there are four basic broths: Ma-La, which is spicy; Shiitake Mushroom, which is very mild and earthy; Herbal; and Tomato, which has a slight zest tingle with plenty of tomato flavor and aroma. We chose the mushroom for PJ’s introduction to shabu-shabu.
Hot-pot isn’t just about broth, though. Two more key elements are required: Items to cook in the broth, and dipping sauces to add seasoning and interest to the cooked food. We chose ribeye (their most popular choice), clear bean thread, baby bok choy and cauliflower as our ingredients. Three dipping sauces are provided: Asian BBQ (with a bit of shrimp paste in it); creamy garlic in sesame oil; and a variation on ponzu, whose ingredients I couldn’t determine (and the server wouldn’t reveal). All three of these sauces are tasty, though we didn’t use much of the barbeque one.
Now the fun part: You get to play with your food! We started some cauliflower florets cooking, and a couple bits of bok choy, then we dropped a couple slices of ribeye into the broth. This ribeye was so thin you could almost read a newspaper through it, so it cooked in no time at all. The veggies took a bit longer, of course. From there, it was pick out what you wanted from the pot, and replenish whenever the contents seemed to get low. There was plenty of food, including bits of mushroom in the broth. We played, ate and otherwise had a fine time. I found a pot of chile oil on the table, so I could make my portion zesty while PJ kept hers mild. That’s one of the beautiful things about shabu-shabu: You cook in a common pot, but you can tailor the final flavor to fit your desires.
We had such a good time that we were reluctant to leave, even when all the food was gone and the dishes cleared. There wasn’t room for dessert this time, though. Suddenly PJ remembered her bicycle, so we settled up, thanked our servers and waddled hurried out to check on the bike order’s progress.
We’ll be back, perhaps fairly regularly, as we have a reason to be in the neighborhood at least once a month. Sure, there are plenty of eating choices on Anderson Lane nearby. However, none of them actually encourage you to make a game of dinner…
Shabu Hot Pot & Noodle Bar, 2700 Anderson Ln., Austin, Texas 78757. Phone 512.336.8888. Shabu-Shabu (Hot Pot), noodle dishes and other Asian specialties, for lunch, dinner or later in the evening, seven days a week. Chef-prepared food and outstanding service. Perfect for a romantic dinner or casual lunch.
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