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December 30, 2009 > Restaurant Review

Restaurant Review

By Denny Stein
Photos By William Mancebo

Usually our policy, here at the Tri-City Voice STARR headquarters, is to avoid large ubiquitous corporate chain eateries. But Union City's Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot restaurant, though it has two other locations in California, has to be one of the most exotic of "chains." There is one more restaurant in the US, three in Canada, and the rest are in the Far East. So you won't find one on every corner. Neither will all the food taste and look exactly the same because, at The Little Sheep, you order and cook your own meal. And that's where the fun starts.

The hardest part is choosing the ingredients you want from the double-sided menu. First, choose your broth: House Original, Spicy or Half and Half; for non-meat eaters, there's a Vegetarian Mushroom broth, and for the adventurous the Refreshing Herbal Pot Soup. The Original is a safe bet for first-timers: rich lamb stock spiked with garlic cloves, lychee nuts, dried dates, scallions, ginger, and mysterious ingredients described as "Chinese medical restorative materials." It all adds up to a feeling of savory warmth akin to Grandma's chicken soup - you can just tell it's good for you. The broths can be ordered in twos or threes and brought to the table in a divided stainless steel bowl. The bowl is set on the inductive heat cooker in the middle of the table where everyone can reach it. Small ladles and strainers are hooked to the side of the bowl so you can serve yourself broth or bites.

The bites are the delicious bits of meat, vegetables or noodles that you've chosen from the menu. They come to you on white platters or in bowls; you put whatever you want into the broth and watch it cook, then reach in, pluck it out and eat it from your own small bowl. Sounds straightforward and simple? Well, it is, but add in the fun and camaraderie of four to six friends or family and you have a memorable, festive experience.

All the prep has been done for you. Thinly sliced meats come in Lamb, Beef, Chicken and Pork. Another variation is the Homemade Meat Balls: Lamb, Beef, Shrimp, and Fish. Then there's Seafood: Prawns, Fillet, Mussels and Oysters. All are available as combos, so you can taste several, and everyone can have her favorite. But no meal, no matter how exotic, is complete without those leafy green vegetables, and at the Little Lamb you don't have to do the washing and chopping. There's everything from Napa Cabbage and Spinach to Pea Sprouts, and Bamboo Hearts, plus Sliced Potato, Daikon and Winter Melon. It all goes into the hot pot to cook and eat at your own pace.

Menu choices, which you check off and give to your attentive waiter, can be somewhat overwhelming. There's a whole section of Tofu, Mushrooms, and Noodles, including Wontons and Dumpling, Fried Donut and a Sweet Rice Cake. Even if an ingredient seems unfamiliar, try something new each time. Note - The Homemade Lamb Dumplings were meltingly delicious - sturdy yet soft wonton wrappers filled with sweet ground lamb perfectly seasoned; the whole dumpling filled your mouth and dissolved "like butter," as they say. There's dessert too, and the Corn Flour Pancake is out of this world: a simple pancake that tastes like sweet southern buttered cornbread. Don't order it until you've finished, because you'll want it hot.

And if you really don't want to cook yourself, there is a column of pre-cooked dishes that you can order, BBQ, Chow Mein, Pot Stickers, Fried Rice and rolls. Dipping Sauces are available, but the parent company of Little Lamb (XKY Corporation) prides itself on the innovation of flavored soup stocks, rather than boiling water hot pot cooking, thus the taste of the broth infuses the ingredients and sauces are not necessary.

XFY's Hot Pot web site has beautiful photos of its menu choices, and also highlights the history and healthfulness of hot pot cooking and eating. They take great pride in their product and award-winning, clean cutting edge manufacture techniques. The website is a fascinating glimpse into a major part of the world miles from our daily American lives.

The premises are clean and well-kept; prices are reasonable and the atmosphere is unrushed. Mongolian costumes and art decorate the walls. Seated at a booth or around a table, windows fog up with the steam of hot soups, conversation and laughter. Although the restaurant is usually busy, the manager and wait staff are attentive, exceptionally friendly and helpful. The Little Lamb Mongolian Hot Pot restaurant is an exotic way to eat out and feel at home.

Visited December 9, 2009

Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
34396 Alvarado Niles Road, Union City
(510) 675-9919

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