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.)