Yoshinobu Maruyama emigrated from his native Japan to the United States over three decades ago. After many years of work as a restaurant consultant and international trader he decided it was time to introduce shabu shabu to America.
In Japanese, "shabu shabu" literally translates to "swish swish" and refers to the technique employed in preparing the dish. You take razor thin slices of beef and submerge them into a pot of boiling water—it cooks almost instantly. The beef is accompanied by an assortment of vegetables, noodles, and tofu that are also cooked in the water and served over rice.
While some say the dish originated with Genghis Khan, it appeared in Maruyama's native Osaka in the early 20th century. Maruyama opened Shabu Shabu House in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles in 1991—it was the first restaurant of its type in America. Now 18 years later, it continues to "introduce Japanese culture to America," what Maruyama describes as his "main purpose."
Shabu Shabu House only has 24 seats. An elevated circular counter with bar stool seating dominates the front of the room with a gleaming meat slicer sitting proudly off to one side. Behind the circular counter are two neat rows of shorter tables with chairs. In front of each seat there's a heating element for pots of boiling water. To dissipate the heat generated by 24 pots of boiling water, a massive metal extraction system is suspended above, following the curve of the counter.
An order of Shabu Shabu includes a plate of beef, another of vegetables, a bowl of rice, and dipping sauces. Maruyama recommends swishing the beef in the water for one second to cook it to rare, two for medium, and three for well done.
Maruyama is very proud of the beef he uses. The nicely marbled USDA Choice Black Angus ribeye is chilled to just above freezing allowing it to be sliced into impossibly thin slivers. They have both marbled and lean varieties, but Maruyama recommends the marbled—it has much more flavor.
The beef is sliced to order insuring the freshest possible product. Shabu Shabu House goes through between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds a week. Considering that even the larger of the two portion sizes on ther menu—15 slices as opposed to the ten in the small size—amounts to only a few ounces of beef, it makes the number all the more impressive.
Anyone who has eaten at Shabu Shabu House knows the place is invariably packed with waits up to two hours at peak times. But people wouldn't wait this long if the food wasn't delicious. No matter how long you wait, you won't wait long for your food once you sit down. "Quicker than McDonald's" claims Maruyama. And indeed it is.
The prices are more than reasonable too. At lunch, ten slices is $9.98, 15 slices goes for $12.83, and at dinner the same portions cost $14.08 and $16.98, respectively.
Maruyama makes his own sauces—a traditional ponzu sauce as well as a sesame sauce that has 27 ingredients he developed for the American palate. Shabu Shabu House also sells presliced beef for making Shabu Shabu at home.
Maruyama is almost as proud of his coffee as he is or his beef. He serves ICC iced coffee, "over 100 cups a day, all hand brewed" he says proudly, unlike the canned variety on sale at the ramen houses lining East 1st Street in Manhattan. Maruyama has plenty of other pots on the stove and not all of them contain boiling water. He is working an a "hamburger croquette," packaged miso paste and has recently started selling Kano which is a cold dish of cooked beef in a sweet sauce.
Sahbu Shabu House was not always the thriving, bustling business it is today. Maruyama recalls the beginning when things were slow and the clientele was exclusively Japanese. Now it is as diverse as the city of Los Angeles.
Shabu Shabu House
127 Japanese Village Plz Mall, Los Angeles CA 90012 (map)