We could smell the hot pot cloud the moment we entered Little Sheep. And for me, this steamy, dreamy, hunger-inducing billow of exotic mist – rising up into the atmosphere from dozens of tabletop pots bubbling in the dining room – offered the promise of a new adventure. For my guests, a pair of young new colleagues, it brought back images of home.
"Hot pot is definitely what I'd call comfort food," said Bethany Ao, 23, a new Arts & Lifestyle reporter at the Inquirer who grew up in North Carolina with parents who immigrated from South China.
"It was always a fun thing we'd do for birthdays and holidays," said Inquirer photographer Tim Tai, 23, who grew up with Chinese parents in St. Louis. "We'd put a little electric burner in the middle of the dining room table, and my dad would have chopped up all the meats and vegetables beforehand. A special-occasion thing."
A number of places in Chinatown have brought different variations on that home tradition to a restaurant setting in recent years, and it's clearly a draw for the tables of young Asian customers who gathered around their cauldrons here flanked by platters piled high with pink curls of shaved raw lamb, fish balls, fried dough sticks, mushrooms, and bitter melon, which they methodically dunked into hot broth to the tunes of Justin Bieber and the Weeknd on the soundtrack overhead.
I've been to several hot-pot spots in Chinatown before, intrigued by the prospect of an interactive dinner. But without a family tradition to intuitively root me in the rituals of this meal, I'd never found it a particularly satisfying experience. I'd order the wrong combination of ingredients. I'd cook the ingredients in the wrong order. I'd end up putting too many things into the pot at once and continuously lose track, only to fish them out far too many minutes later to find a shriveled-up little wad of overcooked meat or some mushy chunk of mystery vegetable. My new friends were here to guide me, and Bethany didn't mince words with her advice: "Don't be an amateur," she told me. "Putting all the meat in at once is a big no-no."
I was afraid to even begin to describe the muddled messes I have created from the mix-your-own-sauce bars featured at most hot-pot restaurants.
"People can make some really bad sauces," Bethany said, shaking her head. "My sauce protocol is to keep it simple. Just shacha [a fermented seafood paste], sesame oil, and a little garlic."
But there is no such danger of sauce abuse at Little Sheep. Unlike at most hot-pot places, there are no sauces offered at the sleek new branch of the popular worldwide chain, which has more than 300 restaurants in China and nearly 30 in the United States. Manager Will Zhang says Little Sheep's flavorful broth and quality ingredients should do all the talking.
"I miss my shacha," Tim said wistfully, more than once.
But I didn't miss it. Little Sheep's broths were the most flavorful and balanced I've tasted to date, and the first I've encountered that I would actually drink like soup. You can choose up to two for the double-chambered pot, and the milky colored "original" is essential. It gets its depth and cloudiness from the marrow of chicken bones ("plus some fat whole chickens," Zhang said) that cook for nearly eight hours. Its flavors are then intricately layered with cardamom, ginseng, goji berries, Chinese dates, angelica root, ginger, and chilies. This Mongolian-style hot pot isn't spicy so much as it is aromatic. Even the "spicy" variation, which comes nowhere near the nuclear heat of a chili-fired Chengdu-style pot typical in Sichuan restaurants, manages to add discernible layers of roasty pepper savor, bay, and garlic without numbing your lips to what you're eating.
And the quality of Little Sheep's meats is worth it, especially the lamb culled from flocks in New Zealand, which has a nice combination of tenderness and a measured lamby flavor. There's a fine art to the way the restaurant shaves its partially frozen meats, which come off the slicer into sheer sheets that curl into perfect tubes that arrive stacked like marbled pink geometric sculpture. Still chilled on the platter, they can hold their shape long enough so that when carefully swished into the pot for a few seconds – "just long enough that it changes color," Bethany advises – they'll collect pools of broth inside their folds. The spring lamb is the mildest of the choices, but I preferred the richer taste of the older prime aged lamb.
Lamb is, obviously, a major theme at Little Sheep, and it appears in multiple variations I'd recommend, from the spice-dusted grilled skewers of tender nuggets to the shaved ribbons of lamb tripe, which snap like noodles in spicy sweet sauce, and the lamb-stuffed wontons that are among the best of the miscellaneous add-ons from a menu with 90-plus options.
The choices, which cover all manner of meat, offal, seafood, vegetable, noodles, and bean curd, can be dizzying. Fan of duck tongues and beef tendons? Little Sheep has all the spare parts covered, though Tim and I agreed that the appeal of ox artery, which came in dense white chunks, remained a mystery. No matter how long we cooked it, it was like trying to bite through a garden hose.
Even on more subtle levels of timing and menu selection, experienced hot-pot eaters can have completely different notions about what makes the perfect meal, depending on what they grew up eating at home. Tim wanted the soft tofu; Bethany lobbied instead for the sponge variety, which does a better job of soaking up flavors. At $3, we ordered one of each. The prices here, topping out at $9.50 for an 8-ounce plate of protein, make it easy to summon a wide variety of choices. But both agreed to vary from their familial preferences for glass noodles ("too slippery," said Tim) for thick fresh noodles, which we added toward the end, when the broth was more concentrated.
One thing is certain, though: eating hot pot is a social event shaped by the rhythm of cooking food in shifts, requiring collaboration among tablemates and also a measure of attention that, for once, might require putting our cellphones down: "If you're not engaged, something's going to overcook," Bethany said.
We focused on meats and vegetables first, followed by seafood, because it will alter the taste of the broth. And the beef here was as impressive as the lamb, from the "supreme Angus beef" that maintained its tenderness to the pads of fat-striped rib eye that had an extra thickness compared with the other meats and that showed off its richness of texture. The beef, contrary to the lamb, which loves some added spice, really shined best when cooked in the simpler original broth. If you're open to offal but perhaps not ready for intestine, ox tongue is worth a try, thanks to its velvety tenderness when cooked quickly.
I can't say the seafood options here are uniformly as impressive as the meats. The tiger shrimp were fine for novices — tender, big, and snappy. But the head-on whole shrimp were significantly sweeter. The fresh calamari, though, was rubbery no matter how delicately I cooked it, and the big precooked green mussels are never a favorite. The "white fish fillet" was as generic as chicken. Crab stick, that dreaded sushi filler, did not endear itself to me more boiled in broth. One pleasant surprise were imported Japanese fish balls that were peaked at the top and stuffed with a yolklike core of sweet-and-salty yellow fish roe, simultaneously odd and irresistible. The house-made "shrimp meatballs" were also a winner, turning from gray to pink in a matter of seconds, and puffing up with the sweet delicacy of a dumpling stuffing minus its skin.
I had far more fun exploring the world of vegetables: sweet half-moons of pumpkin ("never heard of putting pumpkin in a hot pot," Tim confessed); the water-chestnut-like crunch of lotus roots whose daisy wheel of holes collected pockets of broth; sweet corn rounds that reminded me of a Louisiana crawfish boil.
Winter melon took nearly 30 minutes in the pot until the delicate, almost translucent sweetness of it, which is prized is so many soups, finally came forth. A basket of mixed mushrooms, meanwhile, added shade upon shade of extra umami to the brew, especially the meaty shiitake caps, snappy sheets of king oysters, and delicate bundles of thin-stemmed enokis.
We took Bethany's recommendation and, after a satisfying noodle course, finished our feast by plunging a bouquet of tung ho into the pot, and the frilly edged chrysanthemum greens delivered a peppery blast of chlorophyll that had a wonderfully pleasant cleansing effect after a meal of mingled flavors.