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20 Jun 2014

The Indy Endorsement: The 'Washu' (American Waygu) Shabu Shabu at Shabu Shabu Zen

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Herein lie all the ingredients to one helluva fun meal. Herein lie all the ingredients to one helluva fun meal. CVI Crapcam

What: The “Washu” (American Waygu) Shabu Shabu

Where: Shabu Shabu Zen, 71680 Highway 111 No. F, Rancho Mirage

How much: $25

Contact: 760-779-5000; shabu-shabu-zen.com

Why: It’s just so much damn fun—and delicious, too.

It was fun. It was active. It was a little messy. And it was delicious.

It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had in the Coachella Valley.

The meal we had at Shabu Shabu Zen on a June Wednesday night was not my first experience with shabu shabu, a form of dining which, grossly oversimplified, can be called Japanese fondue. I became smitten with the food form when I reviewed an excellent shabu shabu place in Tucson, Ariz., eight-plus years ago. Sadly, that place didn’t last long, and I hadn’t enjoyed shabu shabu since.

That’s why I was really excited when I saw a sign for Shabu Shabu Zen as I zoomed down Highway 111 several months back. Finally, on the aforementioned June Wednesday night, we had a chance to visit the new restaurant.

After enjoying some delicious chicken “shio-koji” karaage ($8; the folks at Shabu Shabu Zen refer to it as Japanese-style fried chicken) and a sake flight ($13), we split an order of the Kobe-style beef shabu shabu.

Here’s how it works: You a pick a protein—anything from tofu ($15) on up to a seafood assortment ($36) or even premium waygu ribeye ($48). Then you pick one of three broths: the mild, lightly seasoned traditional shabu shabu; a strong soy-sauce/mirin-based broth; or an in-the-middle miso-style broth. You get rice, two dipping sauces (a sesame sauce in which you grind your own sesame seeds, and a ponzu sauce), three condiments (ground garlic, ground daikon and scallions) and a bowl of vegetables, tofu and udon noodles.

After everything is delivered, and the broth comes to a boil on the burner at your table, you get to work—mixing condiments and sauces, and cooking the meats, tofu, noodles and veggies in the broth. In the case of the thinly sliced waygu, you only want to swish the meat around for several seconds. (In fact, “shabu shabu” roughly means “swish swish.”)

Then, when all of the goodies are cooked and devoured, you can ladle the broth into a bowl, doctor it up, and enjoy it as a delicious soup.

This all-too-brief description does not properly convey how freaking fun shabu shabu can be. It’s an absolute blast to play with the condiments and the sauces and the cooked ingredients, mixing and matching and finding out which flavor combinations work the best. (The waygu works great with the ponzu, as well as a bit of garlic and daikon, by the way.)

I’ve also neglected to properly discuss how charming the service and decor at Shabu Shabu Zen are. The elegantly dressed, all-female (on the night we were there, at least) service staff knows their stuff—and is passionate about both the food and the drink. The Shabu Shabu Zen website says the restaurant is family-owned; that may help explain the passion.

Shabu Shabu Zen is not only one of the valley’s most unique restaurants; it’s one of the best, period. Go there.

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