Spring is the time when Seattle is infused with Japanese culture. As cherry blossoms blooms along with the kick off of Sakura-Con, Shabu Chic, a Japanese restaurant, is slowly charming its way at a corner in the International District.
No doubt it is a bold move to open up a Japanese restaurant in the city’s Little Saigon, competing with its Vietnamese counterparts. But the cultural background of owners Kien Ho and Karen Mu made the two a magic team.
Born in southern California, Mu moved to Seattle three and a half years ago. Her grandfather was originally from Shandong, China and her father was born in Korea. Ho, on the other hand, is a born-and-raised Seattleite graduated from the University of Washington. Their goal is simple: to introduce the concept of Japanese hot pot to the community.
“I always wanted to open a shop,” Mu said. “When I first moved here, I missed the food in California.”
“Shabu shabu” is the Japanese term for hot pot. Its uniqueness lies on cooking thin-cut meat and vegetables in hot broth and serve with soy sauce.
Even with the diverse population and cuisine present in Seattle, a traditional shabu shabu is nowhere to be found surprisingly, and not many people are familiar with the idea of Japanese hot pot.
“I think shabu shabu is a good option for people in Seattle because the weather is always cold,” Mu said.
It always takes tremendous amount of courage and patience to start a new business. Apart from picking out the best location within the city, the two also spent time on searching for the right kind of Japanese pot.
“We import our pots from Japan,” Ho said. “Pots available here are Chinese family-styled because they are much bigger. Japanese pot has the right size for individual hot pot.”
Flipping through the menu of Shabu Chic, one can tell the owners have put a lot of thoughts into providing customers with the most suitable option.
The menu is a three-step process: select a broth (traditional seaweed or spicy miso), choose among beef, chicken dumplings, or veggies, and pick your rice (white or brown).
“In the beginning we’re trying to keep it very simple,” Mu said. “Traditional shabu shabu is very simple too.”
The real fun starts when the cooking begins. Customers can add homemade sauce into the pot based on their own applets. As the water boils, they can start to cook different ingredients in the pot.
“You get to be the chef and decide how much protein you want,” Mu said. “And you get to play with your food.”
Travelled around the country to do research on the best way to execute the idea of shabu shabu, Mu and Ho have come down to two key elements: simplicity and healthy.
“People in Seattle look for healthy food,” Mu said. “There is no oil in the food.”
Two weeks after the restaurant’s opening day in early April, the place was packed with customers on a Friday afternoon.
“I think it is really fun,” said customer Sarah Moran. “I have had Chinese hot pot in China before but this is my first time trying individual-sized Japanese hot pot. They put the food in front of you and you get to cook it yourself.”
Walking around Seattle searching for Japanese food, people immediately think of sushi or ramen places. But this may change soon.
“Washington has the fourth largest number of Japanese restaurants in the country,” Ho said. “After sushi and ramen became so popular, it’s shabu shabu time now.”
1032 S. Jackson St. Suite 202, Seattle WA 98104
Having been a community journalist in the area for a few years, I have begun to appreciate every unique story in our town. From the heartwarming story of a local baker to the glorious past of an army general, these are the stories that motivate me to get up in morning and dig deeper into the picture.
“Behind the Scenes” is a biweekly column that features bite size stories you may overlook from your daily routine. --- Jocelyn Chui