It’s a Friday night, and after at least a week of complaining about craving shabu-shabu, my boyfriend has finally buckled under the weight of my complaints and brought me out to our favorite spot, Mokkoji Shabu-Shabu Bar. After waiting for at least a half-hour in a bustling corner of the plaza on Jeffrey and Trabuco, we walk in to find the windows fogged up with the steam rising from the boiling pots of broth that line the bar and cover the tabletops. With tantalizing scents of sesame, miso and garlic warming the air, I can barely wait to get my butt in a chair and get my shabu on.
Some background on the cuisine — shabu-shabu is a Japanese dish that involves cooking meat, vegetables and noodles in your very own (or, perhaps, shared with a loved one) tabletop pot of boiling water, traditionally seasoned with seaweed. The thinly-cut slices of meat are served raw and meant to be placed in the pot piece-by-piece to avoid overcooking. “Shabu-shabu” is a onomatopoeia wordplay that translates to “swish swish,” referring to the simple and quick motion needed to fully cook your meat. Served with a variety of veggies, udon and/or ramen noodles, a number of dipping sauces and a bowl of rice, a meal of shabu-shabu is both an interactive and deliciously satisfying experience.
Mokkoji, opened in 2012, is a shabu-shabu restaurant that plays with both traditional and innovative elements; they cover all the same bases as an authentic shabu place, like particular sauces and cuts of meat, while also offering a variety of special broths (shout-out to spicy miso) and locally-sourced, seasonal vegetables and craft beers. Yup: an ever-rotating menu of craft beers on draft, a factor that definitely sets this place apart from your usual shabu spot.
The restaurant is small, but the extensive bar allows for a comfortable amount of space between parties — in other words, a group friends taking shots at the bar and a family enjoying a loving meal at a cozy table can coexist in the same space. The service is consistently good; employees in black shirts bearing the Mokkoji logo dash around the restaurant, refilling drinks and delivering plates of veggies and meat to hungry customers.
This particular Friday evening, the boyfriend and I were trying to ball on a budget, and after perusing the menu, decided on the dinner special for 2: an appetizer of garlic shrimp, a carafe of hot sake, a 32-piece plate of choice ribeye and a dessert of ice cream macarons, all for around 50 bucks (price varies depending on the cut of meat chosen). While we usually come to Mokkoji for their out-of-this-world lunch special (a regular plate of beef belly for TEN BUCKS!), I consider this dinner deal a very competitive price to beat, especially taking into account that shabu places usually jack up their prices considerably on their dinner menus.
The garlic shrimp was crunchy and packed with flavor, and our huge plate of New York steak was beyond plentiful; for the first time, I found myself struggling to finish my share. After we had finished our meat, the boyfriend opted for the $2 porridge option, where a server mixes your leftover broth with rice and a number of seasonings which vary depending on the type of porridge (options include seaweed porridge, kimchi porridge and squid ink porridge). The result is a complex layering of flavors, all thanks to the addition of the savory, slow-cooked broth.
While Mokkoji shines continuously in the quality and amazing flavors of their meats and broths and their unique quirks — like their logo-branded tofu — what I enjoy most about this restaurant is how welcoming it is, how the interactive and somewhat adventurous nature of shabu-shabu is bettered by the lively and contemporary environment that Mokkoji provides.
The unique flavor of shabu-shabu brings about a lot of memorable moments in my mind; the first time I brought my parents to Mokkoji, my father was thoroughly squicked at the sight of mounds of raw beef on the plate before him. Minutes later, he was happily slurping up udon noodles and showing me his swish technique for how to get the perfect medium rare slice of ribeye. When I first brought my boyfriend, he finished his meal with a disgruntled sigh, complaining about how I’d “kept this place a secret” from him all this time.
Watching the people I love engage with this tactical cuisine has been a lot of fun for me, and introducing friends to shabu continues to be a hobby of mine. While my busy schedule means I may not always have a lot of time to spend with my loved ones, shabu-shabu allows me to share both a meal and an experience with the time we do have together, all over a foamy pot of broth and a couple shots of sake.