Hotpot First Shabu sells soup like Ikea sells furniture: you have to assemble it yourself. The technique of flash-cooking raw ingredients in boiling cauldrons of broth originated among nomadic Mongolian tribes. It then made its way into the kitchens of courtly Chinese chefs during the middle of the 17th century. Eventually, the style landed as a trend in Tokyo and “little Tokyos” throughout the United States like Japantown in San Jose.

Inside, overhead vents keep the restaurant from turning into a savory sauna as guests sit at tables specially fitted with central hot plates. From there, you choose either American Kobe Beef ($20.99 for a large dinner), Angus Lean Beef ($19.99), Lamb ($19.99) or Pork ($18.99) to go with your entree that also comes with fish balls, crisp napa cabbage, tofu pillows, a tiny stalk of enoki mushrooms, a couple slivers of imitation crab and a nest of thin vermicelli. The meals are enough for two, but come with a splitting charge ($4.99).

I went with the American Kobe Beef. It’s a slight misnomer. The American version of this lauded cow doesn’t get massaged or fed beer or played classical music as is mythologized in Japan, but the oval ribbons of meat were thickly dappled with fatty marbling. The wafer-thin slices cooked instantly, but can scald a bit if you don’t turn down the hotplate after it reaches a steady simmer.

For broths, I went with their signature “Spicy and Numbing,” which lived up its reputation as it prompted a heat-tickle in the back of my throat before my mouth went vaguely numb—a singular taste experience caused by the curious flavor of Sichuan peppercorns. I also chose the “Tonkotsu,” a tenured Japanese variety built from the Emeril-Lagasse-adored culinary cornerstone—pork fat.

Other sides include kabocha pumpkin ($3.49), potstickers ($4.49) and udon ($3.49)—if you like your noodles to have a bit more body. The tables come set with soy miso and sweet roasted sesame sauces, plus a little jar of creamed garlic that dissolves into a potent cloud.

At first, the many choices and unfamiliar cooking method can be a smidge overwhelming. But after a few tries, one starts to get the hang of it. Like cracking sunflower seeds, the hassle is half the fun. Plus, each bite is a new creation—a taste that no one else has replicated in the hundreds of years people have been cooking this way.

Hotpot First Shabu
171 Jackson St., San Jose.