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.