I can't imagine a more Chinese way to eat right now in OC than dipping your chopsticks into a Mongolian hot pot at Little Sheep in Irvine. This kind of dish, which can be best described as a variant of fondue, is reportedly so high in demand in China a competing chain has begun home-delivery service to cater to its customers in Beijing who would otherwise have to wait in two-hour-long lines for a table.
But equating Mongolian hot pot to fondue isn't sufficient. Even Japanese shabu shabu, which you may have had, is foreplay compared to this. It's the fetishist level of DIY cooking. Here, you encounter not only the standards of sliced beef, lamb, chicken and pork, but also the decidedly kinkier diversions of tripe, tendon, blood cake, goose intestines and pork kidneys. The rest of the players are a breathless list of vegetables, more meats in different grades of fattiness, dumplings, seafood, noodles, meatballs, six varieties of mushrooms and everything else you might conceivably want to cook on your own in a roiling vat of soup.
How about tofu? There's enough to constitute a full-on tofu combo platter. The best one is the so-called "frozen sponge tofu," an omelet-yellow rectangle purposely frozen, then re-thawed so it attains a fine-grit porousness now well-suited to absorb the broth. And what a broth Little Sheep pours! No one orders the mushroom vegetarian option; everyone opts for the "Yin Yang," in which a divided pot gurgles the house-original, milky-white soup on one side, and the "Mala" broth, which translates to "numbing spicy," on the other. It's these soups that make your meal and inspire perspiration. The induction-powered pots you see at every table simmer liquids redolent of dried fruits, herbs and spices—all of them sending such delicious, intoxicating odors airborne that the whole room might as well be cooking potpourri. You don't walk into a Mongolian hot pot restaurant so much as wade in, as though you're swimming through a sea of smells. If there were such a thing as odor-imaging, waving your arms would show the turbulence your presence has on the environment.
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, www.littlesheephotpot.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. No alcohol.
Your clothes will be as perfumed from your Mongolian hot pot as your stomach will be distended by it. The tendency to overeat is overwhelming, and this isn't even an all-you-can-eat, as other such establishments in our area are. I saw a man and his date order what amounted to enough food to feed his offspring and his offspring's offspring. Beginners would do very well in just ordering the set meal box for $14.95, which is offered at all times except at dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. The artfully arranged bento container includes the essentials of one choice of meat, a few slices of cod that boil into tender flakes, a sampler's selection of meatballs, four slices of the frozen sponge tofu, toothsome house noodles, and all the vegetables you need. The boil will turn the daikon into softness, the bundle of enoki mushrooms into soggy mops, and the weed-like greens called ton ho into something that tastes like a peppery cross between green beans and spinach.
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Save the house-made shrimp meatball for the very last. This grayish clump of raw, minced shrimp they've laid atop a slice of cucumber as if it were a pedestal firms up and transforms to a pink wiggle after a five-minute soak in the spicy hot tub. It has the sweet, resilient chew of a shrimp dumpling that you ate as dim sum, but without the skin—and it's much better than the ultra-costly Kobe beef here, which shrivels into curls of impeccable tenderness indistinguishable from one another no matter the grade or price. Do not, however, ignore such prepared dishes as the tightly crimped, juice-gushing pockets of the boiled lamb dumplings, a house specialty. Or the briskly refreshing, cold bitter-melon salad sluiced with oil. Or the fried and steamed butter rolls, which are two different preparations of northern-style bread, one rendered to the golden crunchiness of a greasy doughnut, the other steamed to be as billowy as a cumulus cloud. Both breads are to be dipped into a thimble of sweetened condensed milk.
If you did it right, an hour, maybe two, will pass before you complete your Little Sheep meal. Your pot will have been refilled a few times over, and the dipping sauces would be diluted to soup. This is perhaps the furthest you can go from fast food. Ironic then, isn't it, that Little Sheep is now owned by Yum! Brands, the company also responsible for Taco Bell's Doritos Loco taco?
This review appeared in print as "Counting Sheep: The Little Sheep chain introduces Mongolian hot pot to Irvine."