There are dishes that can transport us back to our mother's kitchen—certain foods that trigger a sense-memory, whose scent, taste and all-over warm feeling is like time-traveling back to the family dinner table of many meals ago. What tastes like home to me is hot pot, a ritual more than a specific dish; its comforting warmth has been a constant since childhood. It's an engaging, participatory way of cooking and eating that's more of an experience than just another occasion to eat.
For the unfamiliar, hot pot is like a Chinese fondue, though I'd take it over melted cheese or chocolate any day. And, as temperatures here slowly begin to dip and we face the occasional damp night, I'm glad to nourish myself—body and soul—with the tradition of hot pot.
At Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot & Grill, my friends and I gather around a communal pot set on an electric burner embedded into each table. We've been given a sheet lined with a long list of ingredients with which build our own custom meal.
First we select the soup base, a highly seasoned broth that imbues flavor into everything that's cooked in it. We choose the half and half, which comes as a beautiful yin and yang presentation of fiery chili-infused soup and pale, milky broth in a wide, two-sectioned pot. Although the House Original broth looks tame in comparison to its spicy crimson counterpart, it's rich in flavor, made from pork, beef and chicken bones and more than three-dozen herbs, roots and spices. My favorite element is the handful of whole garlic cloves that cook to a soft sweetness in the bubbling brew. There's also a vegetarian mushroom broth available.
The rest of the menu is organized in the eating and cooking sequence of a traditional hot pot meal. Platters of thinly sliced, rosy-hued meat, from marbled beef rib-eye and lamb shoulder to lean pork loin, take mere seconds to cook in the roiling broth. Other meats, including pork belly and beef tendon, need more time to tenderize. We drop in the meat in batches—taking care not to overcrowd the pot and adjusting the temperature setting of our burner so that the soup maintains an even boil. Some hot pot dinners come with a variety of dipping sauces for the cooked meat, but no additional seasoning is needed here.
Next up is the seafood course, whole shell-on tiger prawns, delicate fish filets and homemade shrimp and fish balls, sweet and light in texture. Between bites, we sip bowls of the savory soup that has cooked down and intensified in flavor with every round of meat and seafood.
Before we move on to the next step, an attentive server comes to refill our pot with fresh stock to prepare the hot pot for the final stage of the meal. Cubes of frozen tofu go in to absorb the fragrant soup as they heat through. Skinny, translucent glass noodles take just an instant to soften, but there are also more hearty starches like wide potato noodles and lamb wontons. We decide on delicate-skinned hot pot dumplings, circular in shape and holding a seafood filling. From the list of Chinese vegetables, we select Shitake mushrooms, Napa cabbage and succulent tong ho, which are Chrysanthemum leaves with a celery-like taste. Bellies warmed from the last of the hot pot, we order a few additional items to give us more reason to linger at the table: grilled cuttlefish skewers, crusted with cumin seeds, and a delicious Mongolian meat pie with layers of flaky dough and a spiced beef filling.
A few days later, I stop in again at the clean and contemporary-styled restaurant to check out some of the lunch specials. The Mongolian beef, aromatic with scallions and cilantro, and the garlic spinach are good, but I'm particularly happy with the hand-sliced noodles, stir-fried with peppers. The homemade noodles are thick-cut and rustic, with a pleasingly chewy texture. I look wistfully at others who have the luxury of time during lunch for hot pot, but I know I'll be back soon to enjoy the family-style pleasures of this communal cookery spot. Although everything cooks very quickly in a hot pot, this is a leisurely way to eat, a slow-food version of fast food, with pure and fresh ingredients that are ready to eat in minutes but meant to enjoyed over a long, contented evening. Little Sheep, 4718 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., is open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily for lunch. Dinner hours are 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 858-274-2040 or www.littlesheephotpot.com.