There are many strange delights to be discovered in Aurora's Asian triangle, behind the doors of karaoke bars, noodle shops, Chinese bakeries, tea shops and stores selling herbal back-pain remedies, manga, car insurance and brain tonics. From strip mall to strip mall, the sensory landscape changes mile by mile, sometimes step by step — flashes of Ginza neon and smells of Tonkin Bay, the harsh tracery of Korean letters rubbing up against the graceful swoop of kanji, ancient Mandarin like the scratching of very thoughtful chickens. And everywhere, the different beer signs: Tsingtao and Asahi and 33 and Kirin and the ubiquitous Budweiser.
I've been thrown out of some of these bars, ignored in others. I don't do karaoke, but I know a place where you can indulge your proclivities for singing half-drunk versions of "Mandy" or "Forever in Blue Jeans" until early in the morning. I know where to get great baguette, crab soup, acupuncture, a two-dollar bacon sandwich, Korean doughnuts, durian, Pocky and lychee juice. If it ever becomes an issue, I'm pretty sure I know where to find a hit man. And I know where to go for shabu shabu.
Swish swish — that's more or less what shabu shabu means, describing the action that defines the cuisine: the motion of raw meat, held in chopsticks and swirled through boiling broth. It is simple, messy, chaotic, indefinable and the diametric opposite of sushi, which is controlled and spare and rigorously traditional. But while sushi chefs are like rock stars in Japan, shabu shabu restaurants have no chefs at all. This is do-it-yourself food, requiring only a pot of water, a plate of vegetables, a tray of meat and some tongs. What with all the dipping and swirling, shabu shabu is often compared to fondue. But really, it's Japanese party food: fast-casual cuisine created long before there was any such phrase; almost-but-not-quite fast food, food for large parties, for sharing, for getting a taste of this and a taste of that and drinking a lot in between.
2680 South Havana Street, Aurora
Lunch and dinner daily
Prime Angus: $13.95
Sashimi (five pieces): $10.95
Being the contrary sort, I went alone to J' Shabu, which is owned by Jun Makino (of Junz in Parker) and has been open about a year in this corner-lot strip mall, surrounded by Korean barbecues, Chinese hair salons, a Japanese bar with blacked-out windows, a Honeybaked Ham store and a Fascinations outlet, open late just in case six or eight Kirins inspire in you a sudden desire for a pair of latex underpants or an ergonomic fuck-swing. The place was lightly populated — a party of six at one end, a party of three, a party of two climbing all over each other and demanding forks when they couldn't make their chopsticks work, then me.
There are no tables at J' Shabu, just red upholstered stools and chairs before a U-shaped bar — the surface one long, black induction range (where the metal pots grow super-hot super-fast but transfer no heat to the surrounding counter) set with black plates and black napkins. There's a kitchen in the back manned by a single cook who's responsible for little more than slicing this and dicing that, arranging plates of raw materials, cutting sashimi. One waitress works the inside of the bar — taking orders, delivering supplies, guiding the uninitiated through the process.
"Have you ever had shabu shabu before?" she asked.
"No," I lied. "What do I do?"
"It's easy," she smiled. "I'll help you. First, how about a drink?"
I liked her already.
The waitress brought me a short Kirin and J' Shabu's very basic menu, which includes only five items if you don't count the vegetarian offerings (which I don't), plus sashimi as an appetizer and mochi ice cream for dessert. "These are the meats," she said, pointing to the two kinds of beef (plain rib-eye and prime Angus rib-eye), chicken, a medley of seafood (king crab, scallops, bits of red snapper, salmon, shrimp and cherrystone clams) and sukiyaki (razor-thin slices of beef done in a special sweetened soy broth). "Each plate comes with vegetables, noodles, and you just add them to the pot."
She uncovered the pot. It was filled with water and a piece of kelp.
"Traditional," she said. When Makino first opened J' Shabu, the traditional water and kelp broth was all that was offered. This, of course, did nothing but confuse and infuriate American customers.
"People wanted something other than water," my waitress said, shrugging. So now the house also offers broths: miso, a red-pepper concoction, sweet soy, dashi fish stock. I stuck with the water (which is really the best way to go — the purest expression, flavor-wise, although the dashi is also delicious), asked for the prime Angus and five pieces of tuna sashimi.
"Do you want rice?" my waitress asked.
I made a face. "Uh, no. Why?"
She shrugged again. "Most people want a side of rice."
"But then that would be sushi."
I looked around. All the other parties had bowls of rice in front of them. Rice with their sashimi, rice with their meats, rice spooned into the bubbling bowls of broth.
"I'll just have the sashimi, thanks."
She smiled. "How about another beer?"
According to most food scientists, the tongue is able to experience only four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But the Japanese insist that there is a fifth: umami. Umami is evanescent, transitory, difficult to define. It exists in certain foods, not in others, is composed of a lot of complicated chemistry — glutamate, amino acids, the breaking down of adenosine triphosphate — and is most easily characterized by people's reaction to it. Something with a lot of umami is craved, something without is not. The word itself translates as "tastiness," which I've always thought was hilarious. MSG is essentially mass-produced tastiness: a chemical synthesis of desire.
Shabu shabu itself has no natural umami, which is why it is served with dipping sauces chock-full of the stuff. J' Shabu offers soy sauce (brought in a bottle, unmarked but glistening black), more soy jacked with citric ponzu and green onions, peanut sauce like a thin satay. Although fatty tuna has umami out the wazoo, my sashimi — five thick planks of purplish-red flesh glistening with freshness — had been held too cold. Raw fish should be served slightly colder than the room. We're talking a matter of degrees here, one or two — but those are one or two very important degrees. My fish had a texture it might have attained in a blast chiller — stiff and almost crunchy with ice crystals, as flavorless as chewing my own tongue. I hid a piece under the garnish, dropped another into my napkin. The other three I soaked with soy and wasabi and nibbled at with little enthusiasm.
The prime Angus was also frozen, but with good reason. The beef was cut incredibly thin, shaved on a rotary slicer off a well-marbled rib-eye, and laid like shingles across a large plate. The only way to get a slice that thin is to freeze the meat. The only way to keep it from sticking to the plate, to itself, is to serve it very cold and allow it to warm slowly as you eat.
"Here," my waitress said. "The vegetables." She approached the plate with a pair of tongs, talking as she went, explaining each piece as she built my broth. The shiitake mushrooms, mottled brown, their caps starred with a knife, went in first. White onions in huge whacks. Green onions. "Chinese broccoli stems," she said, and made a sour face. "Bamboo. You want to leave this in until the very end. It's good." Yellow and nubby and thick, it bounced around the bowl like a dog toy. "Enoki."
The enoki mushrooms were beautiful, corpse white and bunched together, stiff without the least sign of wilting. There were spinach leaves on the plate, thick slabs of tofu, Chinese cabbage, Napa cabbage, snaky udon noodles, chrysanthemum leaves that tasted like cut grass and rose petals and, strangely, paper. "Now wait," my waitress said. "It'll make a broth. You dip the meat in for a second, to cook it. The longer it cooks, the stronger it gets."
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But as soon as she walked away, I dove in, because I am impatient and I was hungry and I wanted to get the taste of frozen tuna off my tongue. I shabu shabu'd, swished and swished, as the pot boiled. The marbles of creamy beef fat dissolved the instant they touched the broth, and the meat curled around my chopsticks, making for perfect (if somewhat damp) bites. The tofu grew warm and tasted wonderful touched with peanut sauce (the soy/ponzu was too overpowering, tasting of sour oranges and salty soy and bright spikes of onion). I fished around for cabbage leaves and noodles, snapping them up before they'd gone too limp, chasing each bite with an ice-cold swallow of beer. The broth changed subtly from moment to moment, growing more concentrated as it reduced, more complex as the ingredients gave up their flavors to the liquid. Even the smell of the steam changed — oniony at first, then sour as the cabbages went in, meaty as the dissolved fats started forming a gray-brown scrim on top of the bubbling broth.
Each of the five meat choices brings with it a different harmony. The leaner rib-eye takes to the wet heat better than the Angus, retaining more of its beefy goodness. The sukiyaki is addictive, the seafood a vast panoply of mingling flavors: sweet crab and oily fish and powerful clams, each addition flavoring and being flavored by every other. And, as always, the best bites were the last ones — slurping long udon noodles and slips of onion, tasting the commingled essences of vegetables, tofu, soy, meat and fat. Umami, indeed.
It was a fast dinner, fun, fairly quiet. The affectionate couple was still lingering over the last of their crab, their rice, their kisses, when the waitress started scrubbing down and setting up pots for the next day's lunch. I paid my bill, made for the door, lit a cigarette and considered my options. Fascinations was still open, but I already have all the porn and leather I need. The hair salon was dark, but the lights were on at the Japanese bar, the neon advertising more Kirin. I headed in that direction.
I'd had a good dinner, a couple of drinks. I was feeling lucky.