Online Soga Shabu Shabu identifies itself as Soga Chinese Food. That’s because the “shabu shabu,” or hot pot part of the restaurant, is just a fraction of what it does.
Soga first opened in 2012 at 508 State St., where Nadia’s restaurant used to be. Ting Zhou bought the second-floor restaurant three years ago from the original owners, closed it last summer, and moved it across the street.
The larger, more visible location, which opened in October after extensive remodeling, housed the casual pizza and pasta restaurant Mia Za’s for 10 years.
Initially, Soga’s specialty was traditional Japanese hot pot, similar to fondue in that diners cook their own thinly-sliced meat and vegetables in a pot of simmering broth.
Now, the regular Chinese-food menu featuring Sichuan and Hunan-style food takes center stage, with a menu — and two different glossy take-out menus — listing about 160 items. On a recent weeknight, I found a lot to like, and one thing to avoid.
The squash cake appetizer ($6.99) was a great discovery, with four soft discs of sweet squash, fried and studded with sesame seeds. They were the diameter of a small doughnut and not overly greasy. I initially tried to order the intriguing-sounding lotus root with ginger sauce, but the kitchen was out.
My server talked me out of the Sichuan mung bean noodle and into the steamed white meat chicken with chili sauce ($8.99), from which I learned that steaming chicken is a terrible idea. Vegetables yes, chicken, no. It gave the meat an off-putting smell and taste that the oily chili sauce couldn’t remedy. The large slices of chicken still had some bone and skin intact.
The seafood mei fun ($7.95) got the meal back on track with mild, dry vermicelli noodles that still managed to be well seasoned. They were surrounded by a generous amount of small shrimp, squid, mock crab, tender white fish, vegetables and egg. Server Su Lee later identified the fish as snow fish. A little research revealed that it is also known as sablefish or black cod.
Another solid dish was beef and scallops ($10.50) under “chef’s specialty.” The meat was of good quality, but the bay scallops didn’t hold much appeal. The plate also had lots of broccoli and a great selection of other bright vegetables in a dark broth.
I visited on a Monday night when there were plenty of other customers, but the restaurant wasn’t overly busy. The food came out within about 10 minutes.
The space is enormous, with flashy, comfortable red booths and colorful food photographs covering a pillar in the middle of the room. Fortunately, a TV in front of it was turned off.
Photos over the booths, meanwhile, offer night and day scenes of the Capitol and one of Lambeau Field. Turns out, Zhou, the owner, is a big Packers fan, said Su Lee, who translated for Zhou, who speaks little English.
Lee said Zhou, 50, is from the southeastern Chinese city of Fuzhou, the capital of China’s Fujian province. He was living in New York when he first came to Madison in 2004 after seeing an ad for a job in a Madison restaurant. It was a Chinese place on Park Street, and he only worked there a short time.
The restaurant later closed, and Zhou can’t remember its name since he’s worked in so many restaurants since, Lee said.
He liked Madison a lot and when he learned Soga was for sale in 2014, he bought it and moved back again from New York with his wife and children.
One important thing to know about Soga is that it has a sizable, well-stocked dessert bar in an equally large room in back. I only noticed it as I walked by it to get to the washroom.
I asked the hostess about it, but couldn’t understand who it was for because of a language barrier. She was trying to say it was free.
Customers don’t have to order the all-you-can eat, $24-per-person shabu shabu to try the dessert bar. It’s open to anyone who buys lunch or dinner, Lee said.
They don’t tell you, so I guess you just have to be in the know. I was glad to learn about it, because having orange slices, honeydew melon and a square of cherry Jell-O was the perfect cap to a mostly rewarding meal.