RESTAURANT REVIEW – The delicious reign of King Shabu Shabu expands to Redondo Beach
by Richard Foss
When I was a teenager my parents warned me of the perils of very loud concerts, that my hearing would be damaged and I’d regret it when I grew older. Naturally this made me want to go to more concerts, and while I don’t think I suffered ill effects, according to some statistics there is an epidemic of middle-aged people who can no longer hear soft sounds. It recently occurred to me to wonder if there might be a culinary version of the same thing – people raised on fiery spices and pungent food combinations who can’t appreciate simple, natural flavors. I decided to do an experiment and took someone who loves spicy food to King Shabu Shabu for dinner.
Shabu shabu is a good cuisine for this experiment because it may be the most unornamented high cuisine on the planet. Each diner is given a pot of boiling water with a piece of kelp in it – the kelp makes a very mild soup stock in which vegetables, meat, and noodles simmer. Sauces are offered to anoint whatever comes out of that pot, along with dabs of ginger, garlic, and chopped scallions, but that’s it. The whole experience depends on appreciating briefly boiled protein and vegetables, and the difference between a good shabu shabu place and a bad one is the quality of the ingredients, not the variety.
King Shabu Shabu’s original location in Torrance gets high marks from Japanese food purists, and although the Redondo location has only been open a few months, it’s often packed. There are seats at a long bar and at tables, and a friend recommended the bar for the most personal experience. It was a good call, and we were given friendly encouragement by experts during the course of our meal.
Since the only variable is what protein you’d like, ordering isn’t complex – decide whether you feel like lamb, chicken, pork, scallops, salmon, mussels, shrimp, or several different grades of beef, and your food order is done. Several types of sake, beer, and wine are available, as are soft drinks, and we ordered Ozeki platinum sake and a Sapporo beer. Ozeki is made in California in the Daiginjyo style, which usually compares to a dry, fruity German Auslese wine. The Ozeki isn’t a brilliant example of this style, so I switched to a Tenkawa, which I liked much better.
My companion and I each ordered a two-item combination – salmon and scallops in my case, prime ribeye and Kurobuta pork in his. He had been set on getting the ribeye and lamb, but the customer next to him was raving about how good the pork was, so he switched. We ordered the way we did partly to see how different the broth made with seafood would taste compared with one made with meat.
A bowl of assorted vegetables arrived first, a pretty array of carrots, broccoli, kabocha squash, two kinds of mushrooms, and shredded daikon over cabbage over udon noodles, with tofu and fishcakes on the side. These vegetables have very different cooking times, and one of the servers suggested the order in which they should be added to enjoy all of them at the best texture. I noticed that not everybody considers this – the people at a nearby table dumped everything in at once, which meant the tofu stewed to bits while the carrot and kabocha were still undercooked. We held off dunking anything while snacking on seaweed salad and watching our meats sliced on the rotary blade machine and neatly arranged. They arrived with our brown rice – brown and white are both available – and we were off and cooking.
The seafood was beautiful and took a very brief time in the water to cook – the scallops mere seconds before they were hot through and through and ready to eat. The salmon was thicker and took a bit longer, and if cooked too long fell apart when you tried to pick it out with chopsticks. A small strainer is provided to help with this problem, and I soon found the rhythm of pulling things out of the pot and letting them cool on top of my rice. Since this flavors the rice, it’s a win all around.
The secret to meat shabu shabu is to avoid overcooking it, which everybody does the first time. Americans are conditioned to cook the pinkness out of pork, so at first we waited until it was brown, not considering that the thin slices will keep cooking when they’re out of the water. Those were a bit tough and flavorless, but after we got the hang of it we were able to appreciate the rich character of the kurobuta and the ribeye. My spice-loving companion appreciated a piece, then started dabbling with sauces – one soy-based, the other mild yellow miso that he adulterated with the scallions, garlic, and ginger. He tried the nuclear option – the bottle of Chinese-style chili oil – only once, and went back to using up the miso with every bit of ginger and garlic. Some Japanese-style red pepper and sesame seasoning called togarashi was also available, but we both agreed it fit my seafood better.
As the meal went on both broths became more fully flavored, and I liked the seafood one better. Much of the water had boiled away, and the udon noodles cooked in the thick remainder had a pleasant aroma of the sea. The beef and pork broth was slightly less interesting, and would have benefitted from a dash of black pepper to liven it up.
A few desserts were offered, the usual Asian-style ice creams, sherbet, and mochi, but we declined. As we left, my spice-loving companion admitted that it had been an interesting experience to focus on those simple, natural flavors – then he said to let him know when I felt like going out for Thai food again. He has habituated to and expects extreme contrasts, but for those with acute senses who enjoy subtleties, there is much at King Shabu Shabu to enjoy. The experience is unlike any other, and until you go you won’t know if it’s for you.
King Shabu Shabu is at 903 North Catalina in Redondo. Open Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 5 – 10 p.m., Friday – Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., parking lot available. Wheelchair access good, beer, wine and sake served, Corkage $10. Reservations accepted. Menu at kingofshabushabu.com, phone 310-798-9136.