Have you ever had a bite of food you wanted to last forever? For me, there was that first bite of otoro at Sushi Noguchi, and then the oyster I gulped while a cool breeze blew across Tomales Bay in Northern California. This past week, I added to that list: the last slice of Miyazaki A5 Waygu beef at Halves Boiling Pot + Grill.
If you’re as unfamiliar as I was about Miyazaki A5 Wagyu beef, allow me to paraphrase what the menu said: Imported from Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture and fed for more than 600 days on a special grain diet, this is beef designated A5, a grade the Japanese Meat Grading Association reserves for only the finest cuts—a level that, by the way, far exceeds USDA Prime.
At this point, you might be wondering, “How is this different from Kobe beef?” Well, kiddies, it’s mainly branding. If Kobe, which hails from the Hyogo Prefecture, is Coke, then Miyazaki is Pepsi. Either way, you’re getting a top-of-the-line product that’s just as costly. The lunch price for enjoying 5 ounces of it at Halves Boiling Pot + Grill starts at $35.
Before I swished it around in the shabu shabu pot, my last thin-as-filament slice was so finely marbled it looked as though it were frosted. And as I stared at the cooked piece glistening on my chopstick, I knew I had to savor it, even if it meant just letting it melt on my tongue like a lozenge for a few minutes. But the thing about this beef is that it doesn’t want to stay in your mouth; it wants to disappear. You don’t chew it much at all; you experience it as beefy air.
That afternoon, for the sake of comparison, I also ordered the Premium 1855 Angus Cut, the cheapest beef Halves offers, at $15, which, I must add, was already quite tender. The difference, however, was striking. The Angus chewed like a good aged steak, but the Miyazaki might as well have been ice cream.
If you’re thinking about splurging on the Miyazaki, I suggest you do the same as I did. A side-by-side taste test is the best way to appreciate the 200 percent markup in price. Also, I wouldn’t settle on just boiling the beef; I’d grill-sear it, too, which the restaurant facilitates with a specially designed half-pot, half-grill setup made of cast iron.
This “Halves” option also gives you a choice of either pork belly or the Black Angus short rib to add to your shabu shabu meat. But be warned: Since they’re cut thickly, both the pork belly and short rib will seem like leather compared to the deli-sliced stuff meant for the shabu shabu pot.
Without knowing that the restaurant offers both yakiniku and shabu shabu, Halves resembles every other shabu shabu joint in Orange County. Each table comes with containers of all the usual shabu shabu accouterments of scallions, garlic and grated daikon. And when you order the hot pot here, it comes with dipping bowls of thick goma sauce and ponzu, rice, and raw vegetables, plus an excess of udon noodles you’ll never end up eating.
There’s even the option of hot drops that the waitresses offer from tiny vials that should be labeled with a skull and crossbones. But the restaurant—conceived by the owners of Plush Karaoke Lounge in Irvine—may be the first in Orange County to offer this unique two-for-one DIY meat-cooking experience. And it does it with style. Dials that look as if they belong on a high-end sound system digitally control the induction stoves built into each table. A wall of faux green shrubs dominates the room. And the raw vegetables for the shabu shabu come out dramatically tall in a steel bucket, meticulously arranged as though a floral bouquet. Also, to prevent burns, the waitresses know to position the pots according to whether you’re right- or left-handed.
But even if you judge Halves by its shabu shabu, it’s still an overachiever. For the nominal charge of a buck, it offers six broth options, including miso and a so-called “Chinese Spicy.” The latter turned out to be the same kind of red-tinged, chile-flecked soup that burned through my esophagus the last time I had it at Little Sheep in Irvine. Halves’ version even included Sichuan peppercorns. When one of them attached itself on a piece of broccoli, it numbed my tongue on contact.
Still, when you’re paying the equivalent of a Tiffany’s brooch for the Miyazaki A5 Wagyu, it’s a mistake to overpower it with such an aggressive broth. Besides, you want your tongue to be at its most receptive, so you’ll feel every molecule of that soft, soft meat.
Halves Boiling Pot + Grill, 45 Auto Center Dr., Ste. 116, Foothill Ranch, (949) 215-7788. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9 p.m. Meal for two, $30-$100, food only. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.