First Look: Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot

Yin and yang pot (left) and shaved lamb shoulder

We’re going to be straight with you: When we get word about a restaurant opening in Ward Center in that black hole of a space where restaurants go to die, we’re skeptical. The names of all the second-floor eateries that have come and gone over the years is a jumbled mess in our heads—CompadresE&OTradingCompanyGrandLeyendaCantinaANightclub-Restaurant-Hybrid-Thing. All have come and gone, some more quickly than others. But perhaps Ryan’s—the slump-defying miracle restaurant—will finally get a long-term neighbor.

Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, an international chain of cook-it-yourself hot pot restaurants, opened its doors today, and according to CEO Michael Wu, the place has a history of sticking around. We like the sound of that. 

We attended a recent media night to get a feel for the new spot. It’s a pretty straight-forward hot pot concept: Each table gets a boiling cauldron of hot broth in two flavors and varying degrees of heat (the spicy kind), along with any number (your choice) of raw cook-ables. From thinly shaved slices of Kobe beef to lamb shoulder to fresh dumplings and tofu to scallops and tripe to corn on the cob and pea sprouts, there’s really nothing that can’t be tossed into the soup for cooking.

The milky white broth is made from beef and chicken bones that have been cooked and then cooked some more until the bones release the marrow, making it rich and packed with meaty, smoky flavor. And as you cook, the flavor deepens and intensifies until you end up with a broth completely different (and completely your own) from what you started with. That’s when you throw in a handful of fresh noodles to make your final bite: a bowl of ramen flavored by two hours of cooking.

Here, the signature is the Yin and Yang pot, a combo pot of the base broth alongside a spicy broth that is packed with chili peppers and sesame. Wu says the broth is all about balance, which means that the herbs and flavors used in the broth all complement each other according to traditional Chinese medicine and health practices. Black and white cardamom, dried longan, garlic, scallions and sweet red dates all come together in the pot to create a harmonious flavor profile that sounds more health food-y than it tastes. Plus, there’s a mix-your-own sauce bar that quickly reminds you that here, there’s no such thing as flavor deprivation.

As a chain restaurant (there are 21 locations in North America alone), Little Sheep likely has the big guns to handle the ominous second floor at Ward Center, but it doesn’t suffer from chain-gang syndrome (i.e. cold vinyl booths, anti-atmosphere, two-for-one frozen appetizers) so it doesn’t feel like you’re eating at a TGI Friday’s. A perfect fit for a shopping center in Honolulu.

Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, from $12.95 per person, Ward Center, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., second floor, 593-0055,