Edison, NJ 08817
- Cost: $$
- Credit Cards: All Major
- Alcohol: BYO
- Parking: Public Lot
December 29, 2014
Where do you go to introduce a popular Chinese restaurant chain in the U.S. market? The multicultural heart of Middlesex County, New Jersey, of course, where local food reflects global demographics. Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot brings a dining experience familiar across China to Edison, NJ.
The Little Sheep chain (小肥羊), founded fifteen years ago in the northern Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, already has over 400 locations in China, and more in Japan and Canada. Seventeen U.S. branches have opened in California, Washington state, Hawaii and Texas. In May, Edison became the first New Jersey location, and the second on the East Coast (after Flushing, Queens).
Little Sheep’s website claims the “hot pot” originated one thousand years ago with Mongol horsemen heating soup in their metal helmets. I’m dubious. Whether or not we are following the culinary footsteps of Genghis Khan, hot pot is a popular way to dine. Like Japanese shabu shabu, it is instinctively satisfying to sit around a communal pot cooking and eating – even more so as the weather turns colder.
Little Sheep’s bubbling pots are filled with one of two soup bases: Original or Spicy. The Original, a cloudy white broth drawn from beef and chicken bones, claims a secret recipe of 36 different herbs and spices. Among these, the soup is flavored with goji berries, cardamom pods, ginseng, and jujubes (a berry-like Chinese date). The spicy version features red chillies, “mala” chili oil (made from Sichuan peppercorns and chili pepper) and scallions. You can order varying levels of spiciness – medium makes for a pleasingly fiery pot. Each bowl, with individual ladles, can accommodate up to four diners. Sample both soups in a single pot with the Half & Half, divided down the middle.
Every table has a built-in cooking surface to keep the soup simmering while you cook the fresh ingredients, delivered to your table on separate plates. The extensive menu of over 100 items has plenty of pictures to help you choose among meats, seafood, noodles and vegetables. Record your choices, half plates or full plates, on the paper menu provided. Among the proteins, the pork belly and pork shoulder cooks up nicely. Beef and lamb meatballs are very good. For the adventurous, you can throw pork or goose intestine, and pork kidney or blood cubes into the pot. Seafood options include various fish balls and cakes, scallops, head-on shrimp and surf clams. Dumplings and the tofu platter (soft, fried) work well. Next time I’ll try the quail eggs. Don’t forget to order some vegetables too – the mushrooms pack a punch after absorbing the hot soup.
The longer the broth bubbles, the more intense the flavors. We visited Little Sheep with someone who had lived in Beijing and eaten at Little Sheep locations there. He vouched for the authenticity of the soup flavors and gave us a tip. Ask your server to refresh your soup as it cooks down. The extra soup keeps the spicy pot especially, from getting too spicy toward the end. He also encouraged us to visit the condiment bar to create customized dipping sauces in little bowls for the cooked food emerging from the pot. My favorite is white vinegar squirted over chopped garlic and Thai chillies. Another trick: add fresh udon, yam, or vermicelli noodles at the end of your meal to absorb the most concentrated broth.
Edison makes perfect sense as the first NJ location for Little Sheep. Middlesex County has the largest population reporting Chinese ancestry in NJ; an estimated 12% of Edison’s foreign-born population is Chinese. Middlesex County has the largest Asian population overall in NJ. The Route 27 shopping plaza where Little Sheep is located, in fact, is anchored by a huge Hmart Asian supermarket, and includes other Korean chains like Paris Baguette, Boom Boom Chicken and BCDF Tofu House. We stocked up on Asian dumplings, kimchi, green tea and Japanese soda after each of our hot pot meals.
After eating at Little Sheep twice, I learned that Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot is owned by Louisville, KY-based Yum! Brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut), which acquired the Chinese chain in 2011. I struggle to even type these brands on EthnicNJ.com. “Pizza Hut” is a four-letter word in our house, ridiculed only slightly less than “Olive Garden.” Could Little Sheep be to Chinese cuisine what Taco Bell is to Mexican? I hope not. With hot pot, at least, you can see the raw ingredients and cook your own food. And you don’t have to be drunk to enjoy it. (Little Sheep is BYO, btw.) Little Sheep is still worth a visit in my opinion. Please let me know, however, if anyone finds a family-run Chinese hot pot place in Jersey.