When the phone trail leads from a warehouse in California to a marketing consultant in the Pacific Northwest to a regional manager based in New York, you know you’ve wandered outside the realm of mom-and-pop eateries. But one chain restaurant impresses with fare that tastes — dare we say it? — homemade.
Happy Lamb Hot Pot, under the umbrella of Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, recently opened its doors in Central Square where Yoki Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar used to be. Here, you cook thin-sliced meats, seafood, and vegetables in a bubbling vessel at your table, retrieving ingredients with long-handled skimmers. The broth at this 140-seat spot is excellent. That quality has everything to do with who owns the place. It’s not who you think.
Northeast regional manager William Cheung says that while Yum! Brands (think Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) owns all Little Sheep locations in China, the original team that launched the brand in Inner Mongolia in 1999 owns and manages all of the US and Canadian outlets. Cheung calls the soup at Happy Lamb “even more authentic” because it’s the founders’ recipe, made from scratch daily. (Take note: This spot is not related to another Boston-area hot-pot chain whose ovine logo looks similar.)
Christopher Chiang is head chef here. He cooked at Little Sheep kitchens in New York and New Jersey before relocating to Boston. Peer into a “half & half pot” ($3.95 per person, $1.97 per child) — a vessel with an S-shape divider — and you’ll see two broths. The “house original” is milky looking, even though there is not a drop of dairy in the soup. The color and thickness result from eight hours of simmering chicken bones. The “house spicy” side adds to that chicken broth base handfuls of dried Sichuan chiles, floating on a slick of house-made chile oil. Both soups are dotted with black cardamom pods, goji berries, and angelica root (similar to ginseng), as well as the more familiar ginger, garlic, and scallions.
More than 20 styles of meat are on offer, from rib eye to pork belly. We opt for lamb shoulder ($8), paper-thin curls that arrive slightly frozen so they maintain their shape before being dunked in soup. Combination platters offer a shortcut among the dozens of a la carte options. A seafood combo platter ($12) includes white fish, squid, scallops, and whole shrimp. A veggie combo platter ($12) arrives as a plastic mixing bowl full of spinach, leaf lettuce, Napa cabbage, and baby bok choy, plus daikon wedges and a mini cob of corn. Add enoki mushrooms ($5) and glass noodles ($4) or opt for thick, chewy udon or rice sticks. Check off what you want on a placemat-size order form, then flag down your server.
A cold side dish of spicy lamb tripe ($6), dressed in chile oil, is delicious, with just a hint of earthiness. Mongolian kimchi ($5) is a misnomer — it’s fresh (not fermented) cabbage, dressed in a sweet-spicy vinegar marinade.
One weekend night, with almost every table filled, the place is steamy. The ventilation system labors to keep up but is no match for all the bubbling pots. (You will smell like lamb in the morning.) The website, designed for multiple locations of the chain, advertises wine and beer, but this location does not yet have either. Service is still being fine-tuned. A server seems at a loss to describe a vegan version of the broth to a party next to us that eschews pork and chicken.
This communal style of eating takes some effort. Items cook at various rates, so vigilance is a virtue. Be prepared to be splashed at least once. But the boisterous groups — crowded into seafoam-hued booths around us — don’t mind one bit, altogether unconcerned about which corporation owns this eatery. They just know the broth is pretty terrific.
HAPPY LAMB HOT POT
485 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 857-285-6933, www.littlesheephotpot.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Hot pot broth per person $3.95; a la carte meat, seafood, vegetables, noodles $3-$15; hot and cold side dishes $4-$7.
Hours Sun-Thu lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Fri lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Sat 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
What to order Half & half pot, seafood combo platter, veggie combo platter, lamb shoulder, spicy lamb tripe.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com.