At the southern edge of Edison, a medley of Korean businesses has sprung up in what used to be the Topps Plaza. Among them are a supermarket, an all-you-can-eat BBQ joint, a fried chicken place , a restaurant and a patisserie. Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot Restaurant is the latest addition and I assumed that it too was Korean owned. Not so.
Little Sheep actually started in Batou in Inner Mongolia, a province of China and has since grown into over 350 outlets all over the world. In the US, its restaurants are to be found mainly in California and Texas. There is only one outpost in New York (in Flushing) and one in New Jersey ( Edison). Originally Chinese owned, the chain was acquired by Yum! Brands, a Kentucky based conglomerate about five years ago.
Mongolian Hotpot is a traditional Mongolian dish much like the Japanese shabu-shabu. Diners dip pieces of meat, fish and vegetables into a communal pot of broth and cook them briefly before downing them. The broth is also drunk either during or after the meal. The Edison restaurant is a large cheery place which is very busy on weekends and evenings. At peak hours, there is a half hour wait so you might want to make a reservation if you plan to dine there on the weekend.
We went to Little Sheep on a Friday evening and we were glad we had a reservation because it was packed. It was bitter cold outside and many people must have thought, like us, that a Mongolian hotpot would be just the thing. Our group of six fit comfortably on one of the banquettes and we started to peruse the lengthy menu with its colorful pictures. Basically, each tabletop has two heating elements on which pots of broth kept boiling. The broth can be ordered either savory or spicy , or yin-yang( half and half).The spicy version comes in very gradations ranging from mild to very hot. The basic broth is the same and the heat level is adjusted by the addition of mala peppers and other spices. Take it from me… Do not ask for the broth to be very hot and do not eat the Mala peppers. They are lethal! We ordered the yin-yang, and asked for the spicy half to be medium; that was about as much as we could handle and we are used to heat. The broth was excellent though I’m not sure what the base is. The server told us it was chicken stock but I found that difficult to believe. In any case, it was reputedly flavored with 36 different herbs and spices including goji berries, black cardamom pods, ginseng, jujubes, Szechuan peppercorns and garlic. ( It also seemed to have copious amounts of MSG, though of course that was not mentioned on the site).
From the meats on the menu we chose lamb shoulder, beef, pork belly and lamb leg. We supplemented that with pea shoots, bok choy, daikon, shrimp, shitake mushrooms, noodles, mixed vegetable combo, and fried fish cake. Each of them cooks at a different rate ranging from 15 seconds (for the thinly sliced meats) to three minutes ( for the daikon) and you have to be alerted particularly with the quick cooking, thinly sliced meats. Diners are served with chopsticks, and forks ( upon request) and there are ladles ( with and without holes) for the broth. After the trays containing the meats and veggies are brought to the table, diners dip them in the broth and cook them to their liking.There is also a sauce bar with condiments such as Sa Cha sauce, sesame sauce, hot oil, chopped garlic, cilantro etc. Diners can select what they want and use it to spice up their cooked meats, veggies and noodles.
If I were to eat at Little Sheep again, I would probably get fewer of the thinly sliced meats, for two reasons. They are difficult to cook to just the desired level of doneness and, besides, they do not taste much different once they are cooked. Instead, I would go for some of the other options such as the meatballs which are easier to handle and have some textural variety. I would also stay away from the fried fish cake ( insubstantial) and the shrimp ( not worth the cost). Better order a little less than you think you need and then order again; it is easy to order too much.
The broth will run you $ 3.75 per person and the tureens are refilled as needed at no extra cost. Most meats are priced at $ 6.75 for a half portion of 6 ounces. Veggies, noodles and mushrooms are much cheaper, about half as much. There is also a selection of side dishes , most about $3 each. The desserts are underwhelming and we passed on them. Beverages include various teas, hot and cold, and soft drinks but you can BYOB if you want something stronger.
Some people claim to have racked up checks of about $ 40 a person at Little Sheep. Our experience was not anywhere near that; the check for our table of six came to $ 112 before gratuities, but then again we brought our own wine and did not have dessert.
There is also a lunch special available Monday to Friday. For $10 per person, patrons can get a half portion of meat and a quantity of seasonal vegetables, noodles and mushrooms.
The charm of the hotpot is that it is a shared experience with diners eating items that they cook in a common pot of broth. The ambience at Little Sheep with large groups and families eating together in a pleasant, artfully lit dining space is pleasurable. The servers are friendly and efficient, eager to help. I don’t know that I would go there in summer but now, in the dead of winter, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.
Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot Restaurant. 1737 Route 27, Edison, NJ 08817.
P.S. If you wish, you can take leftover broth home with you. We did and used it to make an excellent congee (jook ) which with the addition of toppings made for another delicious and fulfilling meal.