On a cool evening, Little Sheep is fragrant with cumin, drenched with cumin, so cumin-intensive that cumin-flavored water vapor trickles down the inside of the restaurant’s windows and the dining room is dotted with little puffs of cumin-saturated steam. Little Sheep happens to have a sign — the lamb that makes up most of its logo is as adorable as anything for sale in a Hello Kitty store — but if it didn’t, the restaurant would be recognizable from 50 yards away by the aroma alone. If cumin were as toxic as VX gas, the atmosphere at Little Sheep could be used as a weapon of mass destruction. As Will Rogers once said about Gilroy, you could marinate a steak here just hanging it from a clothesline.
In the San Gabriel Valley, where Chinese restaurants come in waves, hot pots are widely available. Tung Lai Shun serves a gentle Islamic version that the menu translates as warm pot, a soothing, gray mass of lamb and broth and greens. BBQ King, right upstairs from Tung Lai Shun, is an all-you-can-eat buffet hot pot restaurant whose ambiance is halfway between a bar mitzvah reception and your high school cafeteria. Lu Gi is famous for a sort of Sichuan-inflected hot pot whose chile broth reduces by the end of the meal into a viscous, red goo as corrosive as pure lye. At Kingswood, you can toss pale white goose intestines into the mix. At the late J.Z.Y., you were once able to toss down your hot pot with rare custom-brewed teas and delicate Beijing-style snacks.
Little Sheep, a newish restaurant in yet another Monterey Park strip mall, is a specialist in the Mongolian hot pot, which is to say the severely aromatic hot pot of China’s extreme north, stocked with more medicinal plants than an herbalist’s shop and fairly intensive in lamb, a meat many Chinese people tend to dislike. (Lamb was served as one of the courses at a friend’s wedding reception in Singapore a few years ago, and every time I leaned over to chat with a guest across the table, somebody slipped his or her chop onto my plate. I ended up with seven or eight of them before the dinner was over.) At Little Sheep, there are juicy steamed lamb dumplings, lamb fried rice, a sort of crunchy pan-fried lamb bun, and lamb chow mein. The walls are papered with gauzy, room-size photomurals of grazing sheep and giant Mongolian shepherdesses, dreamy, woolly compositions that could easily have squeaked into a Whitney Biennial. One gets the idea that lamb is served here.
A waitress ushers you to a table, and even before she has brought over a menu, she fits into the table a big steel pot, one half of which is filled with a milky lamb broth, the other with a broth studded with handfuls of tiny hot chiles. She clicks on the switch to an induction burner, and the broths bubble into motion. Whole cardamom pods bob, slithery lengths of cordyceps, astringent slices of galangal root, too many garlic cloves to count. There are Chinese dates, sweet and honeylike, and mysterious nutmeg-shaped objects with a pungency I can’t quite place. A floating length of scallion in each half of the bowl cordons the spices from an area of clear broth, like a roped-off swimming area in a lake, so that you don’t necessarily have to end up chewing on woody, powerful spices.
With the hot pot, you order foods to cook in the boiling broth — pink, frozen shavings of lamb, most likely; fresh shiitake mushrooms; chewy ovals of rice noodle; slabs of fresh or fried tofu; sliced bamboo shoots; vividly scented bundles of chrysanthemum greens. Porous lamb meatballs, the size of pigeon eggs, expand in the soup, becoming almost like soup-saturated sponges. Maitake mushrooms are as frilly and funky as an exotic invertebrate, swaying in the boiling currents like sea anemones. Pork balls sink like stones. As with shabu shabu, you pick up a bit of lamb or vegetables with your chopsticks and swish it through the boiling broth for a few seconds until it is just done, unless you prefer to fish them out with a perforated spoon.
Technically, dipping sauces are available at Little Sheep, jars filled with sesame paste, chile oil and a moss-green tincture that tastes like pure cilantro, but you are unlikely ever to use them. Because a hundred men could purée a hundred pounds of a hundred herbs, but there’s no getting around the glorious, fundamental reek of garlic, lamb and cumin.
Little Sheep Restaurant, 120 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (626) 282-1089. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Lunch for two, $14; dinner for two, $16–$24.