If you don’t have a great meal at Happy Shabu Shabu, it’s your own fault—you do all the cooking at the city’s latest outpost of Japanese nabemono, in which guests swish thin-sliced morsels of food in a bubbling pot. Traditionally limited to beef, shabu shabu became popular in the 19th century soon after the cow was introduced to Japan. Happy Shabu Shabu is not Japanese, however. It’s a Chinese adaptation, shining like a beacon on the dark stretch of Canal Street east of the Manhattan Bridge. The interior is certainly happy, decorated with colorful polka dots, glassed-in dioramas crammed with dried flowers and stuffed animals, and a Herbie the Love Bug poster. The long tables are inset with individual radiant cooking stations, one for each diner.
While the Japanese original confines itself to beef, your choice of flesh is wide-ranging, also including pork, lamb, chicken, several kinds of fish, a diverse seafood combination, and a vegetarian selection. Ranging from $7.50 to $12.50, each choice features a towering plate of accessory swishables, including shiitake and enoki mushrooms, fish balls, watercress, napa cabbage, a raw egg, bean-thread vermicelli, sliced fish cake, tofu, tofu skin, taro, daikon, fermented cabbage, and a wedge of unripe tomato that should be discreetly disposed of. Help yourself to innumerable Chinese and Japanese flavorings at the condiment bar. As soon as you reseat yourself, a uniformed attendant appears with a giant silver teapot and pours broth into your personal cooking vessel. Locate the hidden control beneath the table and modulate it so that the stock achieves a slow boil. It’s up to you to decide which condiments to dump into the bubbling liquid, and which to retain as dipping sauces.
As if this ingratiating plenitude weren’t enough, add-ons are also available. Though you might choose to ignore them for purposes of economy, some are quite good, especially the three types of wontons (half-dozen, $3), the blue crab filled with orange roe ($3), the misnamed but pleasantly flavored tempura ($3), and cuttlefish ($5), which should be dipped in the water for only 30 seconds to reach maximum tenderness. Among main ingredients, the lamb has the most interesting flavor, while the pork retains the best texture after boiling. At Happy Shabu Shabu, every meal turns into a competition, as guests figure out things like what to do with the egg—crack it into a floating cabbage leaf and poach it? dribble it to make egg drops? Whoever ends up with the best soup wins.
Reaching for novelty and big-city sophistication, RICOS TACOS (505 51st Street, Brooklyn, 718-633-4816) purveys tacos árabes and taquitos, in addition to the usual roster of tacos, tortas, tostadas, and soups. The former rolls a quantity of spicy chopped beefsteak into a flour tortilla, making an unfried flauta, an open-ended mini-burrito, or a Middle Eastern pita sandwich, depending on your interpretation of this wonderful invention. The latter is a fetish of Mexico City: a taco made with a pair of comical miniature tortillas offered with the usual ingredients presented open-faced. Garnish it at the magnificent salsa table.
Named after a freewheeling beach resort although situated in the shadows of the Queensboro Bridge, newly renovated PATTAYA (1069 First Avenue, 212-752-9277) is a cut or two above the usual neighborhood budget Thai, with more piquant and complex spicing and a handful of unusual dishes. Foremost is Pattaya duck: roasted, deboned, flattened like chicken tabaka, and deep-fried to perfect crispness. On the side, rendered juices are deployed in a soup—thick with vegetables and heaped with roasted cashews—that doubles as a dipping sauce. A $6.95 lunch special served until 4 p.m. includes rice, main dish, and soup.