Country of origin: China
Locations worldwide: Over 700 in Canada, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Korea, Taiwan and the US
NYC locations: One, in Flushing
Hot pot has never been in short supply in New York City, but that didn't stop Little Sheep, a big-in-China, Inner Mongolia-based chain from opening its first local branch in Flushing. Up until now, the restaurant's few US locations have been clustered in California, but since the company was bought by Yum! Brands (parent of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) in 2011, it's likely you'll be seeing more American branches soon.
And the crowds have descended. Only a few weeks old with grand opening lucky bamboo plants in the foyer to show for it, diners with an urge for DIY dipping will likely face a wait, at least on weekends. If you snag a chair in the small waiting area, though, you can watch an entertaining propaganda video on a flat screen explaining the history of the company, and observe sliced beef getting packed on an assembly line with subtitles extolling the virtues of the "culture of grassland" and "chaffy dishes." It passes the time.
Though the hot pot procedure may appear overwhelming for a first-timer, it couldn't be any easier at Little Sheep, where everything is hyper-efficient, starting with the headset-augmented staff. There is a glossy photo menu, and miscommunication is mitigated (though not eliminated—I never received my mixed seafood, but let it go when I realized I'd over-ordered) by the placemat-sized paper order form divided into meats, vegetables, seafood, mushrooms, and tofu, with both whole and half orders available (prices range from to $2.95 to 12.95). The biggest decision will be what and how much to order.
And the soup base, of course ($3.75). If you like variety, the yin yang style that gives you two types of broth in one giant metal vessel is the way to go. When the crimson side, fiery with chile oil and peppercorns, starts numbing your tongue, you can switch over to the milky-looking herbal half dotted with goji berries and jujubes (Chinese dates, not the chewy candy), and perfumed with ginseng and ginger.
A crowd-pleasing approach is to order combo plates like this one, with both thinly sliced marbled lamb shoulder and beef ribeye. They cook in seconds and retain their distinct identities.
But unctuous pork belly gets kind of lost in this paper-thin format. If you love a slippery, chewy cut of meat, the chunky beef tendons might be more texturally interesting.
Bean curd puffs, lotus root wheels, udon noodles, shiitake and enoki mushrooms, cabbage and baby bok choy are just a few of the non-meaty add-ins to choose from. There's not really any right or wrong choice, though it's smart to save noodles until the very end so you can make a concentrated, flavor-packed bowl of soup; otherwise, they get lost in the pot.
Don't forget to pay a visit to the sauce stations in the back of the dining room. The selection is more like the greatest hits of hot pot condiments rather than the exhaustive rows of metal canisters you typically encounter (I never know what to do with the sugar and MSG anyway). Go purist with a single ingredient or make a mashup of creamy sesame paste, hot chile oil, sweet and starchy shacha sauce, and top it with a small fistful of cilantro and green onions, like many do.
There are also non-hot pot dishes on the menu, like these grilled lamb skewers ($5.95), if you get burnt out on cooking your own food. The hot version is genuinely spicy, though you don't notice it until the initial blast of cumin and salt gives way.
Despite the corporate messaging and sleek uniformity, the hot pot at Little Sheep is on par with any of the independent shops in the area. I would definitely not call Little Sheep "the Applebee's of China," as it has been dubbed by the media. It might not woo lovers of outre offal and those who favor semi-secret holes-in-the-wall over well-lit spaces with clean, modern design, but it's no less Chinese because of its accessibility.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and reformed librarian. Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.