The moment you enter Shabu-Zen, the place feels different. What first catches your eye are the dozens of people seated around a low counter, dipping food into steaming vats sunk into the countertop. Of course, this is assuming you can see past the crowds. One of the hottest places in Chinatown these days, Shabu-Zen offers an exotic and refreshing dining experience — the Japanese hot pot. Prepared this way, the food’s clean and fresh: even red meat feels healthy.
The menu is so simple, it’s almost confusing. Essentially, everyone gets the same meal, with a few variations. You take the raw meat of your choice, thinly sliced and arranged on a platter. You get another plate of raw veggies and your pick of either udon noodles, vermicelli, or jasmine rice. Then you cook your food in a personal vat of bubbling broth. For extra flavor, create your own dip by mixing soy sauce with fresh garlic and spring onions, crushed red pepper, and a yummy, gooey paste that our waitress explained is Asian barbecue sauce (although we’re guessing there’s a more authentic name).
The standard options are beef, pork, chicken, and lamb (all $9.95). For a little more, you can opt for seafood or the mushroom-rich vegetarian options (both $11.95). The side plate that comes with each includes mushroom, corn, tomato, watercress, and cabbage, plus some tofu, tofu skin, and a pair of suspicious-looking but flavorful beef and fish balls. Of course, you also get the ubiquitous bottomless cup of hot tea. And to top it all off, every meal comes with a tasty bowl of sweet soybean dessert.
Altogether, it makes for a complete, filling meal. If you feel the need for more starters, though, try a seaweed salad ($2.50) or some edamame ($2.50), steamed and salted soybeans that you suck out of the pod. The gyoza ($3.75) are among the tastiest pan-fried dumplings we’ve had. Quench your thirst with an ice-cold fruit smoothie ($3.50), or relax over a steaming cup of premium sake ($3.95). For more dessert, check out the mochi ice cream ($2.50), which comes wrapped in a paper-thin rice shell, available in red-bean or green-tea flavors.
Who knew cooking your own food could be so much fun?
Shabu-Zen, located at 16 Tyler Street, in Boston, is open Sunday through Wednesday, from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday, until midnight. Call (617) 292-8828, or visit www.shabuzen.com