Not "Baah" but "Ahh"

Little Sheep

4718 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Clairemont

I had to think twice about trying Little Sheep, a Mongolian hot-pot restaurant, but I figured that if I hated it, I could title the review “Baah, humbug!” That’s because my prior experience with hot pots has mainly been Japanese shabu-shabu, which I dislike because the broth is just plain water. By the time it gets any flavor from all the goodies you add, you’re done eating, and the broth still is bland. Sorry, way too refined for my tastes.

Little Sheep does things differently. It’s an international chain (founded in Toronto as Xiao Fei Yang). In Mandarin, I’m told, the name means “fat little sheep.” And it has a fabulous formula: broths are richly seasoned from the get-go, so everything you cook in them comes out tasting better, not merely boiled. The seasonings? I recognized the raft of hot red peppers (we ordered it “spicy”), scallions, garlic cloves, whole cardamom pods, whole nutmegs, and lots more, including other things I couldn’t begin to identify. These hot pots are not only healthy eating but also pack a flavor-wallop even in the milder broths. Unlike shabu-shabu, you don’t get dipping sauces on the side, because you don’t need them.

The restaurant is in a strip mall in an architecturally grim area where most buildings look like small concrete housing projects. But Little Sheep itself is large and handsome inside, with a long bar for solo diners to nosh and drink, and light-colored wooden booths that proved a bit narrow to comfortably fit two lumberjack-size guei lo, one fat little sheep, and one sylph — even the guy sitting next to the sylph felt crowded, so we moved to one of the wooden four-top tables.

The servers, polite and friendly, speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. The most fluent one in the house helps you order your hot pot and tells you how to handle it. (You get one long check-off menu for the table, where you can specify your preference for broth and all the goodies you want to cook in it.) “This is our first time tasting Mongolian food, so we want to try a lot of things,” I warned when our regular waiter returned. “Thank you!” he said. The servers then erected a portable folding table next to our dining table, to stage the huge array. Even that wasn’t quite enough; we tucked many little plates between our place settings. However…after our drink orders failed to appear in due time, we repeated them, and at that point our waiter insisted on seeing proof of age from all of us (all over 40). He collected the IDs, went off to show them to some hidden boss, then returned them with our demon rum (well, wines and beers).

You could probably make a light meal from the non–hot pot dishes (although you’d miss the best dish), so let’s start there. If you also have a hot pot heating, dishes of this sort come “whenever”; the cold salads were welcome throughout the meal as mouth-coolers for our very spicy broth.

Oil-fried vinegar peanuts were a huge hit with the posse (Lynne, Mark, and Ben again). “There’s a lot more than vinegar in here,” said Lynne. “Do you know what else?” Not a clue, except for the oil-wilted cilantro sprigs. Lovers of Southern-style boiled peanuts, alert! And there’s no law against throwing some of them into the broth.

I was thrilled to find jellyfish salad on the menu (an unshakable addiction I picked up in Hong Kong, rarely slaked here in San Diego). The tentacles were tangy and crisp-tender, topped with shreds of cucumber and carrot. “Are these really jellyfish, not some Asian vegetable?” asked Mark. They are, indeed. He loved them; Ben, an airline stew on the Asia routes, was blasé, and Lynne didn’t take much to them. Everybody loved the coarsely cut cucumber salad, while none of us liked the chewy seaweed salad. (Say, what are all these maritime southern Chinese dishes doing in the inland deserts of Mongolia? Well, I certainly don’t mind.) Culinary high-divers may want to try the Mongolian kim-chi.

Contrary to the blandishments of the website’s online menu, there are very few Mongolian barbecue choices — no large cuts, merely small bamboo skewers of bite-sized meats, mushrooms, or veggies. “You want these spicy or not spicy?” our server asked. “How do Mongolians like them?” I asked. “Spicy!” he said, and so that’s how we went. We tried a beef skewer, a lamb skewer, and a pork intestine skewer. They were all good, but the one I found outstanding was the mysterious pork intestine, a risky-sounding choice because it could have been chitlins (the very last tubes in the digestive process) but (phew!) wasn’t. It featured some cut of bouncy, slightly chewy, tender and fatty pinkish meat. I loved the texture, and the flavor carried on a mad love affair with the seasonings.

The Mongolian Beef Pie consists of three layers of semi-crisp Chinese pancakes resembling the scallion pancakes from other regions, with a smooth, thin mixture of ground-beef stuffing between them. One of these ($7) would make a great takeout lunch to eat in a park. We also tried the lamb wontons with a dipping sauce. They were okay, but the same preparation proved vastly better as the raw lamb dumplings we ordered for our hot pot, since the broth lent them such an extra dimension of tastiness. We also ordered Sesame Pancakes, which are not pancakes at all but thick, sturdy bread topped with sesame seeds. It’s a nice palate-soother if you’re eating the spicy hot pot, and also good for dipping in the broth, but by no means a necessity.

The hot pot is almost everybody’s main course here. You can order it mild, spicy, “half-and-half,” or as a mushroom-based vegan broth. With “spicy,” the broth is topped by a flotilla of chopped hot red dried chilis — your choice is whether to eat them, since the liquid itself gains quite a nice heat from their presence. Got kids? Order mild. Got qualms? Order half-and-half. Or, if you anticipate a doggie-bag (as well you may, given the portion sizes), half-and-half is a better choice than full-on hot: the broths’ spiciness seems to double with every night in the fridge, soon turning incendiary. (If you’re expecting leftovers, it’s also a good idea to spend maybe $12 more and order extra noodles, veggies, and perhaps mushrooms to throw in at the last minute before you turn the heat off; they’ll finish cooking when you reheat the broth, making dinner a “double happiness,” a true two-night treat-for-two.)

The hot pot comes with all necessary cooking and serving implements: slotted ladles for cradling and scooping ingredients, a solid ladle for broth, small tongs for picking out deeper denizens of the broth — and at each place-setting, a small plate, a small soup bowl, a Chinese-style soup-spoon, and a set of bamboo chopsticks with thin, tapered oval tips, easy to use compared to square-ended Cantonese plastic chopsticks. (“With these, you can pick up one grain of rice,” said Ben.) You can also get Western-style cutlery if you want it.

Your hot pot is a cauldron of the seasoned broth set on a convection plate in the center of the table. Secret controls under the table turn the heat on. When the broth reaches a roiling boil, you tuck slices of meat into your slotted ladles, shallowly submerge the ladles for about 15 seconds until the meat turns grayish, fish them out, put the meats on your plate, and eat them. Our server explained everything while demonstrating the technique.

We began with “supreme lamb” — since Mongolian hot pot arose to cook mutton, you have to try a fat little sheep in it. The cut is plebeian shoulder, but in this treatment it tastes like tenderloin. We also tried belly pork — pinwheels of thin red meat striped with white fat, which was less flavorful than the lamb. Wish we’d ordered some of the beef options, which include rib steak and tenderloin. (I was afraid beef would end up tasting like bad pot roast. I was obviously wrong, because Mama never made a pot roast with a broth like this one.)

Unfortunately, I couldn’t talk this cautious branch of the posse into trying the pork-blood option — it’s not icky liquid but those gleaming and flavorful jeweled squares of salty garnet gelatin you see in Asian markets’ butcher cases. Ditto any other pork offal. Instead, pork meatballs proved to be miniature beige Spaldings — lots of bounce but bland. There are numerous other meatball options, but they’re none of them going to be your grandma’s Italian or Swedish variety: meat or seafood, they’ll likely be firm, bland, and bouncy, in typical Asian style.

For seafood, we bypassed the easy-to-eat peeled tiger prawns in favor of the head-on (and shell-on) shrimp. These were big, and super-fresh. Yeah, you have to peel them once cooked, but it’s worth it for the extra flavor. But we had a lot of trouble figuring out how long to cook the shelled Hokkigai clams (which I’ve only eaten raw before, as sushi). After several rubbery overcooked tries, the answer is: cradle them in the slotted spoon, cook under ten seconds, then fish ’em out fast. (There are plenty more seafood choices, including cod fillets, squid, cuttlefish, mussels.)

The menu section labeled “Tofu, Mushrooms, and Others” includes numerous noodles along with several versions of indispensable soup dumplings. With noodles (and mushrooms, too), don’t try to cook them in the ladles — just let them roil in the boil. When the dumplings are fully cooked, they pop back up to the surface, just like Western dumplings. The lamb dumplings turned out to be lamb wontons. Once cooked in the broth, they were astonishing — don’t miss them! The “hot pot dumplings,” also stuffed with a little lamb, are based on wonton dough as well but a bit heavier.

Throw in veggies and mushrooms freely — they float on top. As we were passing other tables on our way out, I was happy (nyaa, nyaa, smug!) to notice that most of the Asian families had platters of the same greenery we’d ordered: baby bok choy and pea sprouts. The bok choy takes a full minute or so of boiling. The pea sprouts (the sweet young greens of tender young snow-pea plants before they make peas) are a fast in-and-out. Both hold tremendous bright-green flavors that you crave after a few meats.

We also included king oyster mushrooms in our array: toss them in and let them cook awhile — they won’t overcook, and they’re not great undercooked. If you’re a mushroom lover, consider getting the mushroom sampler platter ($10) with oyster, king oyster, shiitake, enoki, and wood ears. I wish we’d done so. And if I were to do it again, I’d also order one of the tofu choices (probably the fried tofu). When you’re eating the spicy version, you need some bland, soothing tastes and textures in the pot. (In the mild version, those dark fungal flavors should be welcome, too.)

The grand finale is drinking the soup born of the broth and all the flavors you’ve added to it. This is where we finally contemplate noodles. There are several choices of noodles to add; we chose glass noodles, thin strands made of rice or bean flour that cook up transparent and slickety. Given our spicy broth, we should have ordered a double-portion, especially since there’d obviously be leftovers. Just drop them in the hot broth and they’ll cook in a few seconds. If you order heartier noodles (e.g., potato noodles or udon), give them a while at full boil. Even if you’re on a low-carb diet, you do need noodles to fill out this broth — and the rest of your meal is so starch-free, you can afford them.

When you’re done, the servers bring you orange slices for your minimal dessert. (If you’ve gone with the spicy option, consider eating some ice cream or frozen yogurt before you go to bed — dairy products are good at soothing the effects of capsaicin, the hot-pepper chemical, on its way in and out.) And so you conclude your meal, a culinary creation of your own imagination, conspiring with cooks you never meet to create a flavor-packed, rich, and healthy soup of your own design. This is what a hot pot should be: not “baah,” but “ahh!” ■

Little Sheep (Xiao Fei Yang)

★★★½ (Very Good to Excellent)

4718 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard (Diane Street), 858-274-2040; littlesheephotpot.com

HOURS: Mon–Sun 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., Mon–Thu 5:30–9:00 p.m. (Sundays to 9:30 p.m.), Fri–Sat 5:30 p.m.–midnight.
PRICES: Basic hot-pot soup, $3.75 per person (kids up to age 12 are half price, under 6 free). Additions (meats, vegetables, dumplings, noodles, etc.), $3–$10. Cold appetizers, salads, and breads, $4–$5; Mongolian BBQ skewers and light entrées, $5–$7. Late-night weekend specials (10:00–midnight) on lamb meat for hot pot; specials on lunches.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Mongolian hot pots with richly seasoned broth (spicy, medium, mild, or vegetarian-mushroom), with humongous choice of items to cook in them, plus small selection of cold salads, barbecue skewers. Beers, sakes, soju, house wines.
PICK HITS: Vinegar peanuts; cucumber salad; BBQ pork intestine skewers (not chitlins!); for hot pot: “supreme lamb,” head-on shrimp, lamb dumplings, baby bok choy, pea sprouts, glass noodles, mushrooms. Also consider beef, tofu, and heartier noodles (and for the adventurous, pork offal choices).
NEED TO KNOW: Server will guide you to hot-pot procedures (see review for detailed instructions). Loads of choices for vegans and pescetarians. Reservations for six or more only. Family friendly. Website bewildering, with inaccurate menu, but does describe meat choices for hot pot.

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