Air Conditioned Lounge
2819 Pico Blvd. (at 28th)
Santa Monica, 90405
Shabu shabu has bubbled its way into the spotlight recently. I don’t know why or how suddenly everyone I know is hot for shabu shabu, but I do have my theories. This is LA, where food “fads” fade faster than a Mystic tan, and since sushi has long overstayed its welcome and izakaya is sooo July of 2006, shabu shabu is naturally the next trend in our progression through Japanese cuisine.
For some reason, I bristle when I hear about other people going ga-ga over shabu shabu. I can’t really explain this personal phenomenon either, but again, I have my theories. It is similar to the way I feel about Thai, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cuisines. I am suspicious of whether people actually like shabu shabu. Because shabu shabu is the hot new “it” thing, people get cravings for it. They “feel like shabu shabu.” Going out for shabu shabu is like a public signal that you are hip to the world of worldy food.
And for those of us who don’t know, that’s Engrish for “puh-leez.”
I am the last person to judge others with respect to food (from she who treats herself with fire-rrhea-inducing nachos from Benito’s), but I can’t help it in this particular case. I can’t help but raise an eyebrow when someone goes bonkers for shabu shabu because I ate shabu shabu when I was a kid. I don’t mean to make it sound like I am *hmph!*-ing, rolling my eyes, and saying that I am ahead of the culinary curve because I ate shabu shabu *ahem* 30 years ago. I am not snobbily saying that I’ve been eating such oh-so-chic shabu shabu like that all my lifestyle of the rich and famous. In fact, I’m pretty sure that we ate shabu shabu for the exact opposite reason. Shabu shabu is easy to prepare and though it is a relatively cheap way to feed five people, the volume of vegetables gives the illusion of a generous meal.
I guess the only way I can explain my disdain for shabu-bonkersism is by comparing it to the way a friend might wonder why on earth I go bonkers over the Mac and Cheese trend, since they ate that stuff all the time as a kid.
Now the question is, what on earth does shabu shabu have to do with a drink at Air Conditioned?
Pretty much absolutely, entirely, wholly…nada.
Except that shabu shabu scored moi a date at Air Conditioned. Here's the short story:
Not too long ago, I wrote about shabu shabu here, yes right here, on The Delicious Life. Let me just lean back in my cheap Office Depot office chair for a moment and use my superdivahuman memory to call up exactly when that might have been. Why, it was Sunday, March 19, 2006, when I wrote about Mizu 212, a cleek and chic Felix-the-Cat dominated shabu shabu house on Sawtelle.
To make a long story longer, someone whom I had not yet met, whose name I shall not name in order to protect his innocence, had recently gone on his first trip ever to Japan. In fact, it was hia first trip ever to Asia. He tried this wildly (!) exotic (!) dish called shabu shabu. When he came back to LA, being the now-savvy, world-travelling, global-Angeleno that he is, figured that there would have to be the shabu shabu available in LA, since LA has a lot of Asian people. He searched for shabu shabu in Los Angeles, and of course, found The Delicious Life. In case you didn’t know, the Search for Delicious always ends here.
An inquiring email led to another, led to another, and before I had the sense to quietly retreat behind work, my blog, and “busy-ness,” I had agreed to unmask myself from the bottom-half-only photo in my profile.
Who needs JHarmonyMatchDotCom when you can write about shabu shabu on a blog?!?!
So I'm doing it again.
Despite whatever humble motivation, shabu shabu was always a big deal in the Delicious household. Technically, it wasn’t really shabu shabu since the liquid that was bubbling away in the mustard yellow Sunbeam electric skillet with high sides was a seasoned dashi broth sweetened with sugar, instead of plain water infused with a piece of Japanese kombu. We cooked standard vegetables like sliced carrots, onions, different types of mushrooms, and Napa cabbage, thinly sliced meat that was really just bulgogi beef that had not been marinated, and instead of udon noodles, we had dahng-myun, the thin, transparent noodles that were used for jahp-chae. Instead of dipping the cooked ingredients in a soy or sesame sauce, we dipped them in small bowls of raw egg to cool them down. Dad told us that using a raw egg was the traditional way. I didn’t know that salmonella was a tradition.
Shabu shabu was sometimes a silent war between family members, with my sisters fishing for slippery submerged dahng-myun in an underwater battle, and my Dad and I vying for the leafy pieces of Napa cabbage that were tender and would become sweet and caramelized against the skillet wall. When all the shabu shabu ingredients were cooked and eaten, Mom would dump any leftover rice into what was now essentially a flavorful meat and vegetable broth, add some eggs and kimchee, and we’d finish off our meal with a giant skillet of gurgling community jook (rice porridge). If you go to places in Koreatown that do “genghis” shabu shabu, it’s the same thing. It’s a comfort food from my past.
Now I'm just waiting for an email from another stranger.
I'm pretty surprised that I even agreed to meet. There is a reason I don't show my face on my blog. I am a homebody. I don't go out much. I like to hide. But, it wouldn’t be full disclosure. I planned on wearing a brown paper bag over my head. Plus, Air Conditioned is dark inside.
It’s easy to find Air Conditioned if you know to look out for the blue neon sign on the north side of Pico Boulevard. I guess it's cheating, since I had been there before, too. However, it is not easy to find parking. That stretch of Pico isn’t necessarily the most happening spot in Santa Monica, but I had to circle the block at least three times (I certainly had no intention of parking beyond one block’s walking distance from the place) until I
finally realized that there is a tiny parking lot with fewer than a half-dozen spaces in the back. I don’t even think all of them were for Air Conditioned.
Air Conditioned inside belies its semi-ghetto setting, dive-y neighbors, narrow exterior facade, and small, creepy entrance. The bar extends deep from the front to back, dividing the space into two lounge areas on either side. The red leather butterfly-shaped bar stools, potted (faux? that's bad feng shui!) plants, funky ceiling lights, low leathered seating along the wall, and light-up marblesque tables feel a bit like an expensive retro-converted basement rec room. It is a lovely lounge and seems mellow, but I have only ever been there early in the evening, so I'm not sure how chaotic it gets (if at all), and what the crowd is like. Is it full of young Westside wanna-bes? Is it full of aging displaced-from-Hollywood hipsters?
We met early in the evening. We met so early, in fact, that there were only two other people inside the entire time we were there besides a very friendly bartender and the DJ spinning downtempo electronnica from a Powerbook in the front. It was easy to find each other that way. I am pretty sure he could spot me pretty easily, you know, with my sparkling Colgate smile and all.
He was sitting at the far end of the bar looking slightly uncomfortable. How cute.
Air Conditioned’s “menu” is written on a chalkboard above the bar. The bartender asked me what I would like. I suddenly felt the faintest bit of anxiety as I scanned the board. What should I order? My choice of wine could be a signal of the type of person that I am! For about a half-second, I felt the pressure to “impress.” What if he is sitting there watching me, waiting to figure out my entire personality based on whether I chose a red or a white? Do I go with a spicy, feisty Syrah or a conservative Cab? I felt the weight of 29 dimensions of our compatibility suddenly shift into a single wine order. The pressure! The stress! The anxiety! I glanced over at him and saw my golden opportunity. “What are you drinking?”
Water?!?! He was drinking water?!?!
I paused. I think I may have actually LOL-ed.
I ordered a sparkling wine because I like sparkling wine. I don’t care if that makes me a tart.
Incidentally, the aformentioned thought process has never happened prior to this occasion. I nevernevernever care about stupid crap like that, but maybe I was nervous. Or tired. Or weirded out by the fact that someone had actually seen my face. And even though I wrote it out in an entire paragraph, it didn’t really play out that long in my head. I think it lasted all of about 10 seconds.
We exchanged histories. We chatted about work, friends, interests. He laughed. I laughed. I sparkled harder than the two glasses of wine I drank.
I'm waiting for my next cocktail...
** a year ago today, il grano was a place to squander my funemployment checks **