There’s regular shabu-shabu restaurants, and then there’s Shabuya, the all-you-can-eat buffet chain of all the things you’d ever want to boil, simmer and swish in your own roiling vat of broth. I first encountered the brand in La Mirada two years ago, and in the time since, it has become the shabu-shabu model that others in this growing genre could ever hope to imitate. It’s the Amazon.com of shabu.
Inside the vast, gleaming chrome dining room, with ventilation vents draping down from the ceiling as though they were robotic tentacles, was controlled chaos. The servers at the La Mirada branch were not only servers, but also traffic cops, logistics experts and couriers. They topped off my personal shabu pot with more broth, refilled my water glass with iced water to cool my scalded palate, and, of course, delivered the platters of thinly sliced meat that would define my evening and fill my gut.
Ordering the meat at Shabuya—especially the marbled pieces of premium Wagyu—was as easy and gratifying as hitting the same-day Prime Shipping button. There were other proteins, too, including chicken and lamb, but the tenderest and most mouth-melting was the beef. Shabuya allows three orders of any kind of meat at a time, but at some point, I ended up with half a dozen. And as I swished, dipped and ate, everything blurred together like a drunken night on the town. I lost track of what tender slice was currently melting in my mouth.
Since all the meat was brought to me, I could’ve conceivably remained in my seat the entire night, but that would have denied me half the fun. All sight lines in the restaurant lead to a buffet island, which is stocked with everything edible known to humankind. There were enough vegetables to correct my nutritional karmic balance to the positive. But there were also just as many complex carbohydrates to turn the needle back the other way. Imagine a salad bar in which all the produce is designed to wilt in hot broth. It started with the basics of Napa cabbage and bok choy, but it quickly blossomed to include nearly every type of mushroom known to science. Since Shabuya is Korean-owned, there was, of course, kimchi. But I counted at least three kinds of onions. And yes, there were oodles of noodles. What kind did I want-—ramen, Korean pasta, rice noodle, udon? Those were just half of my options.
It took multiple trips to try every one of the meatballs, fish balls and fish cakes that came from numerous species—more than Jacques Cousteau encountered, I’m sure. I saw a saucing station that had more colors than Bob Ross had paint. There were at least three blends of spicy, more than one sweet, and all kinds of sour and savory. There was even an egg sauce whose white color and thickness reminded me of In-N-Out’s vanilla milkshake. And if I didn’t already recoup the cost of admission by gorging on the beef, there was fresh seafood to be had—all of it meant to be boiled in the broth alongside everything else. I plucked out a few plump crawfish and a whole mess of spindly blue crabs, and I ate so many sea scallops that night I think I nudged the restaurant just a little closer toward bankruptcy.
Last week, I attempted to repeat that seminal Shabuya experience at its new location in Fountain Valley—the chain’s first foray into OC. The dining room here was smaller and without the hanging vents. And on busy nights, you’re liable to be seated at a communal table where your plates might get mixed up with those of the person next to you.
But there were even more noticeable differences between this restaurant and the one in La Mirada. The pots weren’t inset into the table, but rather lying flat on top of it. And though still overwhelming, the buffet selection was smaller. I only saw one kind of mushroom, fewer choices of fish balls, and the scallops were a no-show. I was disappointed that the creamy egg sauce I enjoyed was also absent. And although the Fountain Valley branch offered an additional pork option, it didn’t compensate for the fact that lamb was completely shut out.
Honestly, though, if I weren’t trying to compare the two outlets—which are owned by two different franchisees—I would’ve enjoyed myself just the same. This Shabuya is equivalent to those lowercase Target stores that are smaller and carry a limited selection of items. Unless you were looking for something in particular, you’d never know the difference. And by the end of the night, after you’ve stuffed yourself with so much Wagyu beef you think you might die, you won’t.
Shabuya, 18279 Brookhurst St., Stes. 8-9, Fountain Valley, (714) 860-7772; shabuya.net. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. $26.99 per person. Beer and soju.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.