Your belly buttons at 6 oclock
When they weren't lopping off people's heads or taking purification baths because—strangely—killing made them feel bad, Genghis Khan and his men enjoyed swishing thinly sliced meats around in hot pots of soup. That and knitting together portions of cut-up beer cans to form hats. (Not really. Canned beer was still 600 years away.) The slaying, the bathing and the swishing, though—that's all true. Slicing your meats thinly makes them cook faster, leaving youmore time for pillaging.
On his death in 1277, Khan left us with—if not cleanliness and a cohesive silk trade—shabu shabu: the hot pot/soup whose name means literally "swish-swish" in Japanese. Even though Japan—which we credit with adopting Khan's soup—was never occupied by the hordes. History is weird like that.
Though not always based around the finest cuts of raw fish, shabu shabu is a good fit for the Japanese cuisine; and under the watchful eye of a drill instructor/server at Irvine's House of Shabu Shabu, it makes for a fine working lunch. Or dinner.
"Every piece of this fish is, like, 10 calories—but I'm burning eight calories cooking it," my friend Dave said, and there is much to cook here. When it's not transparently cut beef (or Kobe beef, hacked from the loins of beer-massaged Japanese super-cattle), shabu shabu is also raw scallops, shrimp and chunks of salmon. And tofu and vegetables: broccoli, onions, carrots. But it begins with seaweed stock: a pot of water with a square of seaweed for flavor. The Shabu Shabu folks bring it to your own personal hot plate, where you sit at one of two horseshoe counters—like an old diner reborn—or at a table. When it boils, you add the vegetables and tofu, then the meats. If they deem you worthy.
"Which two of you ordered the Kobe beef?" barked our server, a middle-aged Asian man with a buzz-cut. We knew the type: R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket with—probably—fewer Lee Harvey Oswald references. Two of us raised our hands, knowing what was next. "Have you ever cooked Kobe beef?" I said no.
"Okay," the D.I. said, his beefy hands reaching across our simmering soup stock to rearrange the condiments. "Your ponzu sauce goes at 12 o'clock. Your belly button's at six o'clock." He almost poked me, but restrained himself. "And your Kobe beef goes here, at four o'clock." Realizing we were left-handed (and surely inferior), he moved it to eight o'clock, sprinkling minced garlic and chopped green onions into our ponzu and sesame seed sauces as he went. Normally, you'd do this yourself.
Genghis Khan never managed to make women equal citizens, but he was right about boiling soup: it cooks beef fast. The D.I. flattened out a curly slice of Kobe beef, submerging it in broth—and instantly it started to gray. He hauled it out barely pink and dunked the slice into the ponzu, the tangy traditional mix of soy sauce, lemon juice and rice wine vinegar. Balancing it in the sauce, he handed me the chopsticks.
It was delicious—not overpowering like the world's other fine beef, which comes from Argentina. In Buenos Aires, if you order a rib-eye, you get a huge, charred slab that'll still ooze life when it's cut. At Shabu Shabu, beef is a tender, buttery, gently flavored meat wafer that melts in your mouth like a fine cut of yellowtail, also from Japan.
House of Shabu Shabu, however, sticks to the basics, and so your shabu shabu will be chunks of chicken or pork, the seafood combination, or your choice of regular or Kobe beef. Not yellowtail. But you won't miss it, you'll be so busy cooking. If they didn't throw in a dish of steamed rice and noodles (which you add to your hot pot after cooking and eating the meat), you'd weigh less coming out than going in.
The only thing guaranteed to make you look up from your hot pot comes in a little brown bottle (sounds like Hunter Thompson) tucked into your waiter's apron pocket. It's essence of habañero chiles—the nitroglycerin of food—and you have to ask for it.
"Do you have the huevos?" our waiter asked. "Can he handle it?" meaning me. "He's from Long Beach," my friend Nick said, and so he dropped one tiny tear from the bottle into my ponzu. And my nose started to run. This is the hottest stuff I've had in at least two years—I think since the time I underestimated fresh grated wasabi. My tongue swelled, and the rest of my soup took on a fiery tinge. Like Genghis Khan.
HOUSE OF SHABU SHABU, 5394 WALNUT AVE., IRVINE, (949) 654-9400. OPEN SUN.-WED., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; THURS.-SAT., 11 A.M.-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $50, EXCLUDING DRINK. BEER, WINE, SAKE!