I grabbed the shadowy picture above on my iPhone coming home today. This place was, until last Thursday, our neighborhood's most popular Shabu Shabu restaurant. It's right around the corner from where I live in Wanhua (萬華), Taiwan.
Shabu Shabu is from Japanese and means, I think, swish swish. It's an onomatopoeia for how the food is (should be) cooked at this kind of establishment. The process for getting your meal is as follows: Customers are seated at tables with individual pots. They then choose what broth they would like and it is poured into the pots by the server. Once the broth comes to a simmer, they add vegetables, meat and other. The meat should be held in chopsticks and swished back and forth until cooked. In Taiwan, however, the meat is simply dumped in the pot and cooked until well-done. When the ingredients appear to be cooked or over-cooked (every man to his own), they are fished out and seasoned for eating. New ingredients are continuously added by the customer, who is also the cook. Seasonings include green onions, garlic, chili, cilantro parsley, soy sauce and sand-tea sauce (沙茶醬), which is a clumpy peanut butter and fish sauce. I usually throw a little white vinegar in as well. Here's a link for the run-down on how to proceed at a Shabu Shabu: http://www.squidoo.com/hotpot
The reason I took this shot was my family just ate dinner there 12 days ago. It was a Monday night and still the place was packed. The restaurant was popular because they had all-you-can eat vegetables, shrimp and clams, ice cream and cakes. There was also a soda pop machine, coffee brewer and half a dozen varieties of tea. To top it off, these creative restauranteurs kicked in a multi-tiered chocolate fountain for marshmellow and cookie dipping. Who would have known the restaurant was on its last legs? I guess there were signs though, see the outrageous bill we paid -- almost NT$1,000 which included new goodies (a ten-percent service charge even though you retrieve the food yourself and do your own cooking and a NT$140 surcharge for infants).
When a restaurant that can fill its tables on a Monday suddenly closes down in Taipei, it's a probably a matter of paying the rent. This is how it seems to go here: If you can't bring in customers, you shutter because you're not able to make ends meet. If you are successful, the owner of the property recognizes you are in the black and raises the rent to a rate that you can no longer be profitable at. Two McDonalds and a Wellcome Supermarket have also left our community in the last couple of years. Not that I am lamenting these facts. I was curious about McDonalds vacating the corner of Wanda Road (萬大路) and Dong Yuan Street (東園街) though. After they left, the landlord wasn't able to find a tenant for this extremely high-activity spot for over a year, and I'm guessing it came down to a staggeringly high rent proposal. (Cafe 85 has since moved in and is packed into the wee hours.)
My family has a lot of memories from this Shabu Shabu spot. In a previous life, it was the banquet hall in which my brother and sister-in-law were married. I'll never forget being left with a bag containing around US$10,000 full of red envelops after all of the festive relatives, friends and associates had staggered off. That'll teach me not to go off for a last-minute leak. Anyway, I did the negotiating for their wedding dinner. I am proud to say I held my own too; I even pretended to count empty beer bottles.
I wonder how long it is before another business establishment settles here, how long it lasts and what it is. Hopefully, the new owners will take into account the high turnover of previous businesses when they enter into negotiations.