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Monday, December 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
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Soga Shabu Shabu is a lot of food and a lot of fun
Hot hot-pot spot
First dip, then devour with shabu shabu hot pots.
Credit:Kelly Doering

Bring your appetite and a sense of adventure to Soga Shabu Shabu, a Chinese, Sichuan and Japanese restaurant in the cavernous upstairs space at 508 State St. that used to be Nadia's. From tame lo mein to fiery Sichuan cuisine to the namesake Japanese shabu shabu, the menu is ripe for playful palates. Try something new here, because why not? If you can dig a pork casing filled with spare bits (ahem, a brat), how much of a leap is a fish ball, really?

I considered fried bullfrog and the loofa and egg but settled on the pig ears appetizer. Because for all my talk of my love of pork, it was time to kick it up a notch. I do believe in using every part of the animal, so I needed to do as I say.

I'm a texture eater. I grew up eating meat and potatoes in a culture in which cartilage isn't encountered very often, so I was full of trepidation at the idea of a pig ear. However, finely sliced and served room temperature in a beautiful chili-based sauce with scallions, the meat is yielding, but toothy in places. I appreciated the opportunity to try something I don't get to sample on a regular basis, and to acknowledge that there are people who delight in pig ears as much as I delight in kosher dogs.

Don't miss out on the shabu shabu, or hot pot - one order is plenty to share. Mounded carrot greens, spinach and cabbage join an entourage of taro root, lotus root, languid shiitakes and spindly enoki mushrooms, rice vermicelli, fish balls and tofu. That's just the beginning. The main ingredient might be seafood, beef, pork, chicken, lamb or vegetable; they come raw and frozen, shaved and rolled, to be plopped with other fixings into a pot of simmering stock bubbling over a burner at the table.

I was tempted by the beef short ribs, but I couldn't turn down the "fatty shabu shabu" - after all, the fat would be melting into the pot, and fat is flavor. It was beef, but as to what cut, we couldn't tell, and our server wasn't sure. The add-on of salmon was a good decision, too. Half the fun is making and serving the shabu shabu. Through trial and error, we found that maybe we should have broken down the noodle nest a bit, as the noodles whiplashed and wriggled away from the serving spoon. But that was part of the fun.

Our waitress recommended #89, which the menu calls "poached sliced chicken in hot chili sauce," though as our waitress told us in advance, that's a typo; it's fish. The chili-smattered sauce - savory, hot and fragrant in characteristic Sichuan fashion - is full of garlic and what appeared to be mustard greens. It's assertive and confident, the way I like my spicy food to be. And the white, firm flesh of the fish held up well in the sauce.

Every restaurant has food on its menu there to please the masses. The fried duck, a bone-in half, seems to be one of them here. Dare I say it? "White people like it," we were told, so maybe this explains my mixed feelings. I like duck. And it was good fried, as are a lot of things, albeit slightly tough from cooking it this way. As for the accompanying hoisin sauce, I'd like to make that my new ketchup.

I'm saving the best for last. A surprise ending. Despite all the protein on our table, my favorite dish was the spicy salad appetizer. A pleasant burn and well-balanced sweetness in the dressing is a simple, delicious way to brighten up the little knots of seaweed, slivers of red and green bell peppers, zucchini, cucumber, dried mushrooms and aromatics.

Our plates were lifted and we laughed at the Rorschach of splattered broth and chili sauces over the white linen tablecloth. We killed it. Even so, with five of us and five plates, we still had enough left to feed at least a few more. Portions are generous.

As Soga serves food until bar time for much of the week, it would be a great place to slurp up soup through the cold hours of the night. Or climb the stairs for a lunchtime bento box. As with all good adventures, it's about the journey.

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