Photos and Words by Rebecca Wheeler
Along Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of Allston, ethnic dives are almost as abundant as college students. Shabu-Zen sits, dangerously unpretentious, between a dingy Chinese takeout place and a nondescript alleyway. If it weren’t for its large front windows, I may have walked right past the place. Steaming silver pots in the middle of each table caught my eye. It also didn’t hurt that everyone inside (it was packed!) seemed to be hovering over bubbling cauldrons, apparently entranced by whatever was inside. I needed to experience that–whateverit was.
When I came back with friends on a much less-crowded Tuesday night, our server identified the mysterious procedure I had watched from afar: “hot pot,” or an East Asian tradition of cooking raw ingredients in a simmering, often zesty or spicy broth, directly at the table. It is essentially an Asian-fusion Melting Pot. Only this was the real deal; there was no cheese and chocolate, but only raw meats, assorted fungi, fish and soy products galore! How did I not know about this before?
From the menu to the table settings, I found that the entire affair was actually very straightforward. First, you get to pick your protein from a wide range of choices. Then, you are offered a side of either udon noodles, vermicelli (an angel-haired rice noodle), or steamed white rice. And finally, from an intriguing list of soups with regional descriptors, such as Szechuan or Mongolian-style, you must choose your broth. The table was set with a number of curious plastic vessels, metal cage-like spoons, disposable chopsticks and paper placemats; a large electric burner rules the center of the table. Though simple in their appearances, the odd assortment of utensils had certain magic about them, foreshadowing the exotic process—at least for a “hot pot” newbie like myself.
Because all the cooking takes place at the table, our broths arrived shortly after we’d decided on Tom Yum and Kimchi (yes, you can split the pot). Tom Yum, a spicy sour soup base made with lemongrass and Thai chilies, is not for the faint of heart or tongue. Kimchi, also piquant in its own right, is made of fermented ingredients and distinctly orange in its color. Both were equally as tantalizing as we submerged our thinly sliced steak and wild array of vegetables, both familiar and foreign, and watched them bubble and froth. As I waited anxiously for my food to cook, I seized the opportunity to examine the four condiments that the server placed on the table: minced garlic, sliced chilies, scallions, and a secret sauce with the distinct flavors of peanuts, brown sugar, and sesame oil. I mixed copious amounts of each into my own soy sauce dish.
The moment finally comes to taste test the more delicate veggies (such as watercress and cabbage), and submerge the heartier ones (the taro, corn, and mushroom balls). The steak cooks in just minutes in the cage-apparatus. Though the spiciness of the broth kept my nose running and the stomach digesting, I appreciated the fact that it did not overshadow the tastes of the simple ingredients. Despite the promise of side dishes and dessert, my “hot pot”-head escorts decided to order à la carte sides as our original piles of ingredients began to diminish. We also tried pork wontons (which come frozen), a sautéed clam appetizer, and sides of watercress and taro.
It was a lot of food, but we finished every last bite. All that we were left with was a rich and delicious, complex broth in our miniature bowls to nurse with our bowl-sized spoons. I’m beginning to understand the various gizmos and gadgets. At the very end of the meal, as if we haven’t consumed enough fluid, we are brought the tiniest vessel full of a chilled, brown substance: sweetened red bean soup with rice, which was oddly refreshing.
If you don’t live in Boston University's West Campus and are lucky enough to have a car, I recommend that you round up some of your friends and drive to Shabu-Zen; they have a parking lot, which is a great convenience in Boston. This place is perfect for groups regardless, but beware: it is easy to get carried away with ordering side dishes, as they rack up rather quickly! So go for the experience and split things. Just don’t don't take your date here unless you both agree to consume equal amounts of garlic or suspect them of witchcraft. My last words of advice to you: be adventurous! If you’ve decided to dine here, chances are you’re more curious than the Average Joe, so eat the mushroom balls! And don’t be afraid of the peculiar white rubbery things.
I’ll be back Shabu-Zen. In fact, I already was on Wednesday for lunch.
Shabu-Zen 80 Brighton Avenue Allston, MA 02134 (617) 782 8888 *Also located in Boston's Chinatown
Hours: Monday: 11:30 am - 11:00 pm Tuesday: 12:00 pm - 11:00 pm Wednesday: 11:30 am - 11:00 pm Thursday: 11:30 am - 11:00 pm Friday: 11:30 am - 12:00 am Saturday: 11:30 am - 12:00 am Sunday: 11:30 am - 11:00 pm