Swish-Swish Sensation

Japanese food lovers: Get thee to Shabu Shabu Tanaka

I doubt that many people accidentally stumble upon Shabu Shabu Tanaka.

It occupies a nondescript space in the large shopping center at River and Craycroft roads; other restaurants in that same center have more prominent locations and signage. You can't see Shabu Shabu Tanaka from a major road, and to make matters worse, when we were there, the restaurant's sign was mysteriously unlit.

In other words, you have to be looking for Shabu Shabu Tanaka to find it. And it speaks volumes that the 2-plus-year-old place was packed that night. A Thursday night.

After two fantastic meals there, we understand why.

The square room is dominated by a U-shaped bar, where the majority of the seating is; a burner sits just behind the bar at each spot. A few tables sit on the outskirts. Although it's clean, the restaurant has a slightly disorganized vibe. It has an Asian kitsch feel; a couple of shelving units are filled with knickknacks, and a large, multicolored umbrella (that looks like it mutated after once being in a tropical drink) covers a portion of the behind-the-bar work area. The walls are mostly run-of-the-mill white sheetrock--except for a green, white and gold flower scene painted directly on the southern wall.

Garrett and I plopped down at one of the few tables (a mistake, in retrospect--I recommend sitting at the bar, because you may feel like an outsider at the tables). The specialty of Shabu Shabu is, as you may have guessed, shabu-shabu. This means "swish-swish," according to a helpful laminated guide we discovered at the bar during our second visit. The procedure: They bring you a broth flavored with shitake mushrooms and dried kelp, along with a plate of raw vegetables, meat or seafood. They add tofu and a bevy of vegetables (including spinach, onions, cabbage, green onions, carrots, shitake mushrooms and enoki mushrooms) to the broth. Once the broth gets boiling, you cook the thinly sliced meats/seafood in the liquid yourself, removing them in 10 to 30 seconds. Then, you dip the meats/seafood and vegetables in any of the three sauces (a ponzu sauce with garlic, green onions and minced daikon radish, along with a sesame sauce and a ginger sauce)--and enjoy! Finally, when that's finished, you can add in flour soba noodles, and using the sauces, fashion the rest of the broth and vegetables into a soup. There are about 17 shabu-shabu choices for dinner (ranging from $9.50 for the vegetable medley on up to $25 for king crab), and a little more than half that number for lunch ($6.50-$13.50).

But that's not all the restaurant offers: About 20 appetizers, a half-dozen dinner specials and a decent selection of sashimi, sushi and rolls fill out the dinner offerings. If you can't find something to eat on this menu, you need help.

I had never done the shabu-shabu thing before, so I decided to try the Angus beef shabu-shabu ($13.50), with the deluxe shabu-shabu add-on of five sushi pieces and ice cream ($5). Garrett went with the sashimi dinner ($15.50). For starters, we picked the gyoza ($3.50) and the seaweed salad ($3.50), along with the shitake mushroom tempura à la carte ($1).

As we enjoyed the smell of all the simmering shabu-shabu and the sound of the overhead koto music, our charming server--with help from the owners of the restaurant (who were working hard in the kitchen)--started delivering food. The seaweed salad, with cucumber pieces and sesame seeds playing supporting roles, was a vinegary delight. The gyoza were perfectly prepared; the addition of more-than-normal green onions made the dumplings unique and tasty.

As they set up for my shabu-shabu (which was delayed slightly because they needed to change my portable burner's gas canister), and put the vegetables in the warm broth, they delivered my sushi. One piece each of whitefish, salmon, tuna, yellowtail and shrimp sat on the platter, and they were each fantastic--all were fresh, and the rice was perfectly prepared (unlike at some other places in town, which make sushi rice too dry).

Garrett started in on his sashimi plate (with salmon, tuna, octopus and yellowtail, complemented by potato salad, miso soup and yet more gyoza), as well as the shitake mushroom tempura, which was a sweet-tasting, delectable tidbit. Garrett--who is notoriously picky--couldn't find a fault in his meal, other than perhaps the unremarkable nature of the potato salad.

Meanwhile, I started dipping my thin Angus slices in the now-boiling concoction. The three sauces were all fantastic, but my fave was the doctored-up ponzu. I could have sipped the citrus-vinegar liquid by itself. As I dipped the vegetables and piping-hot beef in the sauces (with chopsticks--forks are nowhere to be seen), the one downside of the shabu-shabu became apparent: Outside of the sauces, there is not much flavor. The broth by itself is bland, and the vegetables and even the beef don't add much taste. Thankfully, the sauces are all wonderful, and they carried the meal.

After ending the meal with mochi ice cream--I had green tea, and Garrett had mango--we left, thoroughly satisfied and charmed by our fantastic, if pricey, meal.

We returned on the following Saturday for lunch. The place was fairly busy, and we sat at the bar this time; in a reversal of roles, Garrett got the shabu-shabu, with shrimp (or, as the menu put it, "shirimp," $8.75 for lunch), and I ordered the bento box with tempura, barbecued pork, sashimi, rice, miso and squid salad ($12.50). We also got an order of shumai ($5) and a crunch roll ($7.50).

After Garrett and the server reminisced about the Pet Shop Boys (playing overhead, courtesy of Mix FM), she started delivering food--and again, it was all splendid. The shumai were a little chewier than your average dumplings, but they were very tasty. The crunch roll--primarily a tempura shrimp roll topped with tempura "crunch" and a sweet sauce--was so good, we ended up getting a second for dessert. (The restaurant doesn't seem to have a list of what's in each of the sushi rolls; one would be helpful.) Other than the barbecued pork, which lacked sauce and seemed surprisingly plain, everything in my bento box was sumptuous, and Garrett ate every last bit of his shrimp shabu-shabu.

Shabu Shabu Tanaka is one of the best Asian restaurants in Tucson right now. We'll be back--and I recommend you make a point of getting there, even if it's a little bit of a challenge to find.