KAPAHULU—On a recent chilly and windy January evening, my family dropped by Shabu Shabu Bangkok, which opened several months ago in the space formerly occupied by Yakiniku Toraji, on the corner of Kapahulu and Kaimuki Avenues.
Parking always appears to be problematic in that location, which had previously deterred us. Thankfully, the small lot behind the restaurant on Kaimuki Avenue is fine to park in even when it appears full; just double park and inform the hostess, who will ask you to move your vehicle if necessary.
For those newcomers to Shabu-shabu, also known as hot pot, it is a style of do-it-yourself cooking that originated in China, was popularized in Japan, and has spread throughout much of Asia and now, seemingly, Honolulu.
Essentially, diners choose from a selection of broths, proteins, vegetables, and starches, which are brought table-side and cooked in the broth according to the pacing and preferences of the table. In fact, the Japanese term shabu-shabu directly translates to “swish-swish,” which perfectly describes the method of cooking.
The atmosphere at Shabu Shabu Bangkok is tranquil, comfortable, and almost elegant. The two large dining rooms feature a random and somewhat kitschy decor, but one that comes across as upscale for a hot pot place.
The restaurant does not accept reservations apart from those for a party of six or more, for which you can reserve one of two tatami-style private rooms—definitely something I plan to do in the near future, as they looked extremely inviting.
What makes Shabu Shabu Bangkok stand out from its hot pot peers is the Thai twist it takes with their broths. They offer two Thai-style broths—Tom Yum and Curry—in addition to traditional beef, chicken, and vegetable varieties. There is a broth charge is $2.00 per person, including unlimited refills. But because the pot they use is divided, diners can enjoy multiple broths.
Shabu Shabu Bangkok also offers a selection of complimentary dipping sauces: red bean curd mix, soy sauce mix, cilantro/lime, Tom Yum, and ginger green onion. Clueless and intrigued, we sampled every one, trying to get a sense of which mixed best with what. We found, for instance, that the spicy red bean curd paired especially well with veggies and, likewise, the cilantro/lime with seafood.
To be honest, however, the sauces struck me as almost superfluous; we found the Tom Yum and curry broths plenty flavorful, if a bit salty, on their own. Later I learned that the broth is traditionally held until the end of the meal, at which point it is mixed with rice to create a soup. If the meat is eaten without broth, then the dipping sauces make more sense.
Service was friendly and attentive. Our server displayed genuine enthusiasm for the food: “I could eat this stuff everyday and never get sick of it.” And, since we were newcomers, he did his best to steer us in the right direction when ordering. He checked on us regularly to refill our broth and waters.
Diners have the option of ordering combination platters of meats and vegetables, or ordering a la cart. In general it is best to order gradually, since they can be brought to the table quickly.
The meat, seafood, and vegetables all appeared fresh. Certain starchy items, such as noodles and dumplings, can only be ordered a la carte. If you have kids, be sure to order two servings of noodles off the bat, as they are not very large. A small selection of appetizers and desserts are also available, but we did not try them.
Shabu Shabu Bangkok is BYOB. The bad news is that they charge a corkage fee of $2 person; the good news is that they’ll bring you an ice bucket to keep your beverages chilled while you linger. Happily, the management doesn’t seem to mind if you take your time.
The menu at Shabu Shabu Bangkok extols their food as “healthy, fun, and affordable.” It does offer a comforting meal, perfect for a cooler evening, but not heavy in a way that would be unappealing in summer.
At about $70 for a family of four (including tip), it is not cheap. But it is hardly pricey for sit-down dining in this town. All-in-all, Shabu Shabu Bangkok appears to be a welcome addition to the neighborhood and Honolulu’s burgeoning hot pot scene.
Shabu Shabu Bangkok is located at 949 Kapahulu Ave. For more information, call (808) 732-7666.