A tray of hot pot add-ins, prior to being tossed into boiling broth.
Growing up on military bases, I could always count on build your own Mongolian BBQ night at the officers club. Aside from my mother's cooking, it was probably the most consistent meal of my childhood. However, until this week, I'd never tried any other Mongolian dishes.
4718 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
I shouldn't have waited so long. I found Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot just across the freeway from Mira Mesa, in Scripps Ranch. It's the newer location of an international chain, which has locations in Canada, China, Japan, and Kearny Mesa.
A yin-yang shaped hot pot allows diners to try both regular and spicy broths.
If you've tried Chinese hot pot, we're talking about pretty much the same thing. It's said the invading soldiers of Ghengis Khan brought hot pot process to China 800 years ago. As the Little Sheep web site tells it, "Mongol horsemen would fill their overturned helmets with water, place them in embers to simmer, and add meat and vegetables."
Scripps Ranch location of the Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot chain
Little Sheep has replaced the embers of a wartime campfire with an electric tabletop range. Instead of a helmet, a round metal pot sits on the range, coming to a boil within reach of everyone at the table. For $11.95, there's two choices of broth, but I went for a third option: both the regular and spicy broths. These are served in a single pot, kept separate by an ess-shaped divider that splits the circular pan into familiar yin and yang sections.
Freshly cooked meat and vegetables, in aromatic chicken broth.
The soup gets boiling atop your table, and you add raw vegetables and thinly sliced meats to cook in the broth to your liking. An order includes a tray of standard add-ins: enoki mushrooms, entire leaves of lettuce, a trio of meatballs, imitation crab, large slices of potato and daikon radish, and noodles. I stuck with the default wheat noodles — thick and toothsome — but alternatives include udon, potato, and glass noodles.
You get a choice of protein, and I picked the beef belly on special. Regular options vary, including lamb shoulder, tiger shrimp, pork belly, chicken breast, and tofu. For an extra buck or three, other add-ons include taro root, fish balls with roe, and — my pick — boiled quail eggs.
These were all fine. The meat cooks within seconds, while the noodles and vegetables take a bit longer. The helpful staff offered plenty of cooking advice as I tried to master the provided tongs and ladle to cook and serve myself. But it didn't stop me from making a splashy mess while my glasses steamed up from the boiling pot.
Meanwhile, that broth crept up on me. It was dressed with garlic cloves, bay leaves, ginger, whole sections of scallions, goji berries, and a couple different cardamom pods. The spicy side was swimming with red chili peppers. There wass a lot swirling around in there (and a slotted ladle to help me sort it out). Spicy or not, as these seasonings come together with the chicken stock base, their aromatics joined in lingering on my palate. And lingering. As I drove away from the restaurant, I could still almost taste it, and still craved more.
Fortunately, I had leftovers. A single hot pot cost about $15 with the quail eggs (and those creamy yolks were totally worth the extra couple bucks). It could easily feed two, and most of the other diners I saw were sharing. But I would recommend getting enough to take some home. A night in the fridge does wonderful things to that broth. Despite being the product of a large chain of restaurants, I gotta say that leftover soup had soul.