I used to travel a lot.
Often, in the last 3-4 years, I have been known to be out of the country for weeks at a time with only a couple weeks’ interval when I’m in San Francisco.
Where I go changes, how often I go changes, but one thing has remained the same for the last two of those years.
WHEN I RETURN, I invariably go to Shabu House, located in the Outer Richmond at 5158 Geary Blvd in San Francisco, at the corner of 16th Avenue. I would go to Shabu House, and I’d gorge on meat. The only exception to this was when I came back from Argentina, where I had more meat than any human being should, I ran to sushi instead. But otherwise, I go from SFO to Shabu House.
If I was to be out of town for more than 4-5 days, you can rest assured I would run to Shabu House to get my “fix” before leaving town and be back first thing when I returned.
In the US, we use “woof woof” as a dog’s bark. In Korea, they say “mung mung”.
In the US, we say, “swish swish” to indicate swirling in water. In Japan, they say, “Shabu Shabu”.
Shabu Shabu is the Japanese version of what is better known as Chinese “hot pot”. There is always a broth boiling in front of you (usually plain water) into which you dip thinly sliced meat and vegetables, swirl to cook, and dip into ponzu sauce to eat with or without rice.
The taste is extremely simple and clean, and it’s perhaps as close to the Atkins Diet dream as one can get – meat and veggies, boiled!
Ordinarily, it’s never been one of my favorite meals, actually. Growing up in Japan, I would sigh if the parents declared it to be Shabu Shabu night. They liked shabu shabu, but I found it boring.
But when Shabu House first opened, my interest was piqued due to their usage of American Kobe Beef. Sure, it’s not Wagyu beef, but this is meat that is eons ahead of regular beef that is commonly available in Shabu Shabu restaurants. And I wasn’t sure that Shabu House would really be using topnotch beef.
What differentiates Shabu House from its peers (of which it has many in the Bay Area now) is the meat, but also the availability of the “Spicy Miso” broth. Other restaurants have imitated, but failed to duplicate this broth. The little bit of flavor and kick in this broth, combined with the nicely marbled meat simply makes for one delicious meal. Many, many delicious bites of thinly sliced beef is what you get at Shabu House.
Shabu House has become quite the popular restaurant in San Francisco sometime soon after its opening. What used to be a good place to have an impromptu dinner is now one that requires great planning as on most evenings during dinnertime, your wait will be significant, up to an hour or more sometimes. Reservations are taken only for tables, and only for parties of 3 or more. There is a wait-list on which you sign up as soon as you enter, and hope for the best. They offer a 15% Happy Hour discount from the entire bill if you place your order between 5 – 6 p.m. which is a great deal if you can eat at that time, and this offer is valid every single day.
The best hours I have found to eat at Shabu House is during this Happy Hour, or having dinner past 8:30 p.m. The best days have been Sunday-Wednesday, or if it’s the weekend, Saturdays seem to be better than Thursdays or Fridays. If you do not want to wait at all, you’re safest entering the restaurant at 9 p.m. or later, keeping in mind that from Sunday to Thursday, their cutoff time is 9:30 p.m. (and 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).
The tables are large and they recently expanded to include a 2nd floor with more tables, and able to accomodate very large parties. There is also a large shabu bar on the first floor – the main perk of sitting in this area is that you don’t have to share your broth – each person has their own burner and broth.
The staff is hit or miss at Shabu House. Rarely have I seen a restaurant change staff this often. Most of the time, they are young adults who have other jobs, who mean well, but are not very efficient servers. Twice, I’ve had truly incompetent servers. Most of the time, everyone is nice, friendly, and pleasant. Every once in awhile, they have truly outstanding staff who make your meal even more enjoyable from the moment they greet you like you’re family.
As of late, especially since the expansion, the wait can be horrible. The way in which they handle their waitlist epitomizes inefficiency, but that’s what happens when you change staff as much as this place does.
A “large” order of beef will include one plate of sliced beef and one plate of vegetables, with sauces and broth, costing $18.95.
But I love food, and I love eating – and their “all-you-can-eat” option is available for $29.95 per person. You get endless orders of beef or lamb, endless orders of vegetable plates – and they will refill your sauces and broth as much as you desire. I always opt for the “all-you-can-eat” as there are days when I can eat more than 3 men combined, and it has served me and my waistline well.
What’s more is that they have an “all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink” option for $39.95, meaning for under $40 per person, you get unlimited access to their house sake (hot only — boo!), or beers (Sapporo, Asahi, etc.). For most, this combination is too tempting to pass up, and I have witnessed large parties here eating and drinking themselves to oblivion. Why they waste space on beer and sake when they could fill it up with meat, I will never understand, but having the option is great. Furthermore, a vegetarian option is available (everything minus the meat) for less cost and that, too, is truly enjoyable (single plate, or all-you-can-eat is available also).
I should note, also, that Shabu House has a nice selection of sake available for purchase (not included in the $40 all-you-can-drink option).
I have tried Shabu Shabu in Tokyo, and from coast to coast in the U.S. and nothing has come close to being as delicious as Shabu House in San Francisco. It’s not rare that I have ended up going to Shabu House 2 days in a row, or once in awhile, 3-4X a week in the beginning and have been known to claim that I single-handedly pay their monthly rent. Lately, when I am in town, I seem to go 1-2 times a week, without fail. It’s to the point that people text me, “Going to Shabu House tonight – will you be there?” (I eat there often but I am not a fixture, my friends.) I have introduced countless people to this business (mostly because I need someone to go with me to eat here) and every single one has declared it to be the best Shabu Shabu they have ever had.
So, you can’t really blame me that upon returning from 2 weeks in Europe, I landed at SFO at 6:20 p.m. last week after traveling for 16 hours and walked into Shabu House by 8 p.m. It’s just that good. Add to that the cold weather in San Francisco, and the piping hot broth and meat becomes comfort food, without the usual fat and heaviness associated with “comfort food”.
It can be a gluttonous experience, and I’ve witnessed people eat here to the point of becoming ill on the spot. More often than not, I, too, come home regretting how much I ate, and the rest of my night is spent in a verifiable food coma. I absolutely never eat here when I have to be somewhere else after dinner as I am basically non-functioning for at least 3-4 hours after this meal, not to even mention I feel pregnant afterwards. Like I said, gluttony at its best!
If you haven’t tried it already – this is one place you must try. If you have visitors in town, take them here, too. Nowhere in the world thus far, have I found a Shabu Shabu restaurant to be as delicious as Shabu House in San Francisco.
You won’t be disappointed.
Addictive Factor: 10/10
Overall Rating: 8.8/10
UPDATE: Now, there’s a location in Burlingame. I’m basically a fixture there, too. The location is larger and can accommodate more people–even huge groups.
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.