Although shabu shabu is a popular Japanese cooking style popping up in many parts of the United States, it’s one that many Utahns might not be familiar with — but Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu Bar aims to change that with a custom-designed restaurant dedicated to this preparation method.
Similar to fondue, shabu shabu is a Japanese hot-pot dish where fresh vegetables, udon noodles and thinly sliced meat are boiled in broth until cooked. The items are then dipped in a variety of sauces like the creamy goma (sesame) or citrusy soy-based ponzu and enjoyed.
Upon entering Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu, customers are asked if they are there for ramen or shabu shabu. It might seem like an odd question, but there is also a restaurant next door called Tonkotsu serving ramen, so the question begins to make sense.
Once you decide on shabu shabu, you’ll be seated either at the bar or in larger booths. Each seat is directly in front of a heated cooking surface from which you’ll prepare your meal.
The menu is straightforward: Choose your protein (beef, lamb, pork belly, scallops, salmon or chicken) and then a broth (tonkotsu, miso, kombu, sukiyaki or kabocha). The protein items are then brought to you in a raw state and you can begin to cook as soon as the broth begins to boil in front of you.
Herein lies the rub. If you don’t know much about the items you are preparing, your meal will be as good or bad as you yourself make it! For example, the beef ribeye, which comes in your choice of “prime” quality ($20 regular, $24 large) or USDA “choice” ($17 regular, $20 large), can largely be ruined if allowed to boil for too long. A mere swirl in the hot broth allows the paper-thin slices of meat to pick up the flavor of the creamy tonkotsu (or other) broth and heat, but a longer bath renders them too chewy.
Pork belly ($15 regular, $17 large) and seafood options allow for more flexibility in cooking time, but a cursory explanation of the process and how long things might take to properly cook would do wonders for guests new to the shabu shabu dining method.
We also found this lack of direction when it came to cooking odd because when I tried to order a combination of protein and broth that I thought sounded good, it was suggested that I try something else instead. I appreciated the guidance, and if it had continued throughout the entire meal, the overall experience would have been far more satisfying.
This lack of service and explanation seemed to be confined to just one visit at lunchtime, however. Our server that day, who also appeared to be all front-of-house operations, was still cleaning and prepping the meat slicer for use when we arrived and therefore preoccupied.
Subsequently, he forgot to bring my scallops ($17 regular, $20 large), so I cooked and ate most of my vegetables in the classic miso broth before the protein arrived. He also failed to turn on the burner for another customer — prolonging the cooking process significantly. Yet another visit at dinner was a smoother dining process, delivered with no complaints.
These hiccups stand out because the attention to detail on other fronts at Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu is meticulous. Special care was given to providing sauces and condiments, including personalized drops of chile oil in the ponzu and a carrier of chopped garlic and fresh accompaniments to add to each broth.
Most dramatic are the protein presentations. Raw salmon ($17 regular, $20 large) is arranged in a rose design, pork belly is curled and beef slices are folded just so as they are individually cut before being delivered to your cooking station. Even the bowls of fresh vegetables, greens and udon are layered with care.
With all the preparation effort that goes into eating shabu shabu, dessert is a sweet reward. At Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu, that comes in the form of moffles ($5.95) — warm mochi-flavored waffles served with a choice of ice cream (like black sesame or red bean) and whipped cream.
Although Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu might not be for everyone, particularly those who prefer their meal be prepared for them, the experience is certainly worth a try for the quality and presentation of the ingredients and an overall fun feast around the table.
Heather L. Kingalso writes for www.slclunches.com and can be found on social media @slclunches
Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu Bar *** (out of 4 stars)
Noise • 2 bells
Location: 1898 W. 3500 South, Unit 11, West Valley City; 714-650-5449
Children’s menu: No
Wheelchair access: Yes
Outdoor dining: No
On-site parking: Yes
Credit cards: Yes