Quite unlike densely built urban Chinatowns (a historic remnant on the western edge of Gaslamp memorializes old San Diego’s Chinatown), Convoy Street’s eateries sprawl for a mile or so in strip shopping centers between Aero Drive and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. Many centers are virtual restaurant buffets, such as 4646 Convoy, home to the distinctly Japanese Shabu Shabu House, several Korean barbecue restaurants, the very American Crab Hut, an extremely popular Chinese eatery called Tofu House (lines all the time, and everybody looks happy) and O’Brien’s, a bar celebrated for a remarkable selection of beers and great burgers and fries. A half-block up the street, 4690 Convoy boasts such notable restaurants as Sichuan Garden (also known as Spicy City) and China Max.
Shabu Shabu House exclusively serves Japanese hot-pot meals. Comfortable and welcoming, it takes the no-nonsense "Eat and get on with your life" approach typical of authentic Asian restaurants. The action starts the moment guests settle their backsides on the stools surrounding the horseshoe-shaped counter; why wait when you’re hungry? Heating elements are preset with polished steel vessels that become personal cookers, and friendly servers crank on the power to heat premeasured water, which slowly is transformed into delectable broth as ingredients boil in the pot. Everything happens fast after guests choose from the menu: vegetables as entrée, or chewy shrimpballs (interesting, but...), or pork, chicken, beef, lamb, clams, shrimp, scallops and salmon, alone or in combination.
Shabu Shabu House charges a few bucks less at lunch; most dinner selections cost $12.99 or $13.99 for a "regular" portion (it’s plenty big) and $2 more for a large serving that might overwhelm the average appetite. You won’t leave hungry. Shaved slices of prime beef rib eye star ($17 regular, $22 large), or you can spend slightly more for two- and three-item combos. The menu amusingly notes that the $26.99 "all you can eat shabu shabu" must be consumed within 1.5 hours.
After the order has been placed, servers toss various flavorings in the pot while setting out dipping sauces and such accompaniments as chopped garlic and onion. For a beef shabu shabu, the server yanks a whole frozen rib eye (it’s a long column of meat) from a freezer and shaves ruby slices on an electric machine. Once the plate is in front of you, drop in a piece of beef, fish it out, dip in sauce and consume — but watch out, it’s hot. Next, chopped cabbage, delicate Japanese mushrooms and other vegetables go into the pot, to be enjoyed before the server finally adds soba noodles. By this time, you’re pretty full, but don’t quit before spooning up a bowl of rich broth.
Sichuan Garden frequently has a short wait for tables, but it’s time well spent, since this is some of the tastiest Chinese fare around. Like Shabu Shabu, the place is welcoming and comfortable, but nothing fancy. The food’s the thing, and there is plenty worth having, bearing in mind that authentic dishes like ragingly piquant Chungking-style fish with pickled chili peppers ($11.99) will overly challenge uninitiated palates.
The cooking is excellent, and pleasures include a snack of seasoned peanuts sided with shredded seaweed in sweet sauce (day’s price), to be enjoyed before a meal that might include exceptionally good kung pao shrimp ($12.99). While seasoned with dried Szechuan peppers, this is by no means too spicy, also true of the superb, crunchy (almost like potato chips) slices of Yunnan-style dried beef stir-fried with peppers and seasonings. As antidote to the saltiness of the meat, order expertly sautéed sliced baby bok choy ($6.99). These suggestions barely touch the tip of a chile-fired iceberg of possibilities.
On the front corner of the same block, China Max was chosen "Best Chinese" by this writer in the June issue of San Diego Magazine. More stylish than most Convoy Street establishments, it serves a more elegant, somewhat costlier cuisine. Designated a "seafood restaurant" — a very significant term among Chinese eatery descriptions — China Max specializes in seafood fished live from tanks but offers a vast menu of other dishes, including impressive appetizers like fried bacon-shrimp rolls ($9.99), elegant winter melon soup ($13.99 for a table-sized bowl) and the ultimate in finger food, lettuce leaf "tacos" topped with beautifully seasoned, stir-fried minced shrimp ($17.99). The quality of the cooking gives the place endless appeal.
All three serve lunch and dinner daily: Shabu Shabu House, 4646 Convoy Street, 858-268-8648; Sichuan Garden (Spicy City), 4690 Convoy Street, 858-278-1818; China Max, 4698 Convoy Street, 858-650-3333, chinamaxsandiego.com.