Bob Liu, owner and tour guide of Bob’s 88 Shabu Shabu in Rockville, likes to tell folks there’s no correct way to eat at his place. “You make yourself your own chef,” he says about shabu-shabu, the tabletop cooking method that dates back to the 13th century, when Genghis Khan’s thugs would flash-boil sliced meats in a communal pot. Liu’s generous philosophy toward his eponymous dish may ease your fears about the do-it-yourself process, but it won’t prevent you from mucking things up.
When the waitress brings out the twin platters for my seafood shabu-shabu—one loaded with vegetables, fish balls, tofu, and a raw egg; the other glistening with clams, shrimp, scallops, oysters, squid, and tilapia—I sit there for a few seconds, overwhelmed by the bounty. She proceeds to pour a chicken-and-pork broth into a pot embedded in the table, turn on the induction burner beneath it, and leave me to my own devices.
With nowhere to turn, I follow my instincts. I flavor the broth with the more aromatic ingredients from the veggie plate; I dump the dense fish balls into the pot, figuring they’ll take longer to cook. I then pinch my seafood with chopsticks and swish-swish the pieces through the bubbling broth—the name “shabu-shabu” is derived from the sound of such swishings—and dip them into the sauces I’ve ladled from the condiment bar. But when I pop the coated chunks into my mouth, I realize something is godawful wrong. Each bite is either drenched in garlic or browbeat by heat.
Liu stops by the table and frowns upon my sauces, three little bowls brimming with tinctures of garlic, spicy red pepper, and sa cha (Chinese barbecue sauce). He heads to the condiment bar and puts together an earthy, spicy, and fishy concoction built on a base of sa cha mixed with sesame, leek, and white bean sauces. The transformation is immediate; suddenly, the briny, sweet, nutty flavors of the seafood harmonize, not clash, with the sauce. It seems that the condiments, if used alone, bulldoze freshly shabu-shabued flesh. Layering them is key to building the perfect dipping sauce.
All meals are obviously not alike at Bob’s, which is both the thrill and the risk here. The kitchen provides you with the raw ingredients—from a garden of veggies to flaky fillets of tilapia just cut from the bug-eyed fish swimming in a nearby tank—but the quality of your meal depends largely on your skills and your knowledge of shabu-shabu. Fortunately, Liu serves as your ever-ready troubleshooter.
A Taiwanese native who also owns Bob’s Noodle 66, Liu seems to be constantly on the prowl for ways to ease Westerners into this somewhat foreign dining experience. I imagine his role mirrors the tour-guide function performed by GMs at stateside sushi bars in the postwar era, when Americans were just getting comfortable with consuming raw fish.
In some ways, shabu-shabu is easier to grasp than sushi (which, incidentally, Liu also serves here, though it’s not the reason to brave Rockville Pike). While shabu-shabu poses few challenges to the palate, it does question your assumptions about a diner’s passive role in a restaurant. You have to play to eat here.
But, easy or not, there are secrets to eating and preparing shabu-shabu. The first is to order beef. In Japan, where shabu-shabu has taken root, the focus is on decadently marbled beef, which the Japanese produce with the skill of designer dog breeders. The version at Bob’s features paper-thin cuts of beef every bit as fatty. If cooked correctly—to the point where the meat changes color—the beef intensifies and deepens the flavor of each sauced bite.
Shabu-shabu is also two dishes in one. When you’re done swish-swishing your meats, you’ll have a reduced broth perfumed with a variety of flavors, from sour pickles to pungent fish balls. This is good. Now dump your vermicelli into the pot (or a side of udon noodles), crack open your egg, and dig into a course of salty, delicious egg-drop soup.
Bob’s is not for the gastronomically timid. The shabu-shabu is, in many ways, the most approachable of the traditional Chinese and Taiwanese dishes. Much of the appetizer menu represents a dare for Western taste buds, starting with the duck tongues cooked in black bean sauce with wilted Thai basil.
The tongues look like tiny severed forearms; once you eat around their reedy bones, the tongues taste both salty and sweet, a not unpleasant combination that pairs well with beer. Far better are the marinated pig ears, a plate of beautifully streaked ribbons of chewy, anise-spiked flesh and cartilage. I even find myself savoring the pig blood; these blocks are actually rich, tofu-like rails of congealed blood used to flavor broths. What I can’t stomach, no matter how well prepared they are, are the spicy duck feet, rubbery, goose-pimpled flaps of flesh that retain the shape of webbed appendages.
If you want, you can eat conservatively at Bob’s—and still eat well. The crispy tofu, a platter of bronzed boulders, may be the best around, simultaneously crunchy, salty, and ever so oily. Even more impressive, the lunchtime bento box of cashew chicken, which comes with a lush, roe-heavy California roll, gives that tired dish new life.
Of course, if you decide to walk down this familiar path, you assume a different risk—that Liu will sidle up to your table, as he did to my dining companion noshing on cashew chicken, and say, “I see you’re eating American today.”
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