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Mongolian Hot Pot: Is It Worth All the Work?

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I have this thing about working for my food: I don't really like it. When I'm dining, I like to sit back and relax and enjoy food that's presented to me. It's ironic, really, because a lot of Vietnamese food (the food that I grew up with) requires work. We like to barbecue beef at the table for bò nướng vỉ (beef cooked on the grill), then roll them in rice paper wrappers. We have bánh xèo (a big, crispy crepe) that we roll up in lettuce before dunking it in a fish sauce dip. And we have this thing we call lẩu, which is loosely translated into English as "hot pot."

I actually love eating all these things, but since I'm averse to the work involved, I don't eat them that much. Especially hot pot. I almost never want to go eat it. I haven't quite worked out how to do it successfully so that my vegetables don't come out soggy, and I always get quite hot and uncomfortable from the steam coming off of the pot. But with the temperatures being what they have been on some days lately, that steamy heat was just what I found myself craving on a recent evening.

There are several restaurants around town that do a good hot pot, but the only one I've been to that is strictly a hot pot place is Hot Pot City (I like their Thai broth). There's Shabu House, a shabu shabu place (Japanese hot pot) that I've been meaning to try, but I find shabu shabu a bit bland, and I've never been able to figure out how to make a sauce good enough to combat that blandness (suggestions welcome).

The night I was craving hot pot, I was determined to try a new place. My girlfriend and her husband love going to Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot on Westheimer, so on the strength of her recommendation, I made a point of heading there on a drizzly, cold evening midweek. I arrived surprised to find every single table full, with a wait of about 20 to 30 minutes and people crowding the entryway with no place to sit. It was obviously a popular place.

The hostess handed me a sheet of paper and a pencil and told me to fill it out in advance of being seated. It was like those papers you get at a sushi restaurant or a dim sum place, with listings of food items and boxes in which you could indicate the quantity of items you want to order. Mongolian Hot Pot offers à la carte ordering, or all-you-can eat service ($19.95). The à la carte prices can quickly add up to that, so since it was my first time there, we chose to go all-we-could-eat.

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You can pick all the items you want for as many as three rounds of service, for a maximum of two hours' worth of dining. The options included meats and seafood, vegetables, and noodles. On the recommendation of someone waiting in line, we chose pork and lamb, several mushrooms, cabbage, bean threads and more.

We were seated at a two-top after about a 20-minute wait, and within minutes a big silver pot was placed on the induction burner in the middle of our table. The pot had a slat down the middle, splitting it into two broths: spicy and regular. There were several ladles -- some with holes so that you could fish out the food you threw in the pot, and one without holes so that you could scoop up the broth.

The hot pot ingredients were served on small plates and bowls. Of the meats, I enjoyed the thinly sliced pork the most. The whole shrimp portion was also excellent, and the mushrooms and other vegetables were fresh and neatly sliced. Though service was generally good, with servers coming back to check on us regularly, our second and third orders got messed up. They kept bringing items that we hadn't ordered and failing to bring items that we did order. I want to attribute it to a language barrier, but it felt as if the server (my server, at least) was just going to the kitchen and picking up whatever plates he could get his hands on, then bringing them to our table without actually checking our order.

As for the broths, the regular broth itself had a strange medicinal herb flavor that neither I nor my companion cared for. There was a root in it -- I think it might have been galangal -- that reminded me of Chinese medicine. My friend assured me that it was this exact herbal quality that she loved. Other than that, the broth was creamy looking but quite bland, with a sort of salty, watery yet peppery finish. The spicy broth was exactly the same as the regular, but with a heapful of peppercorns thrown in to give it a spicy element.

In the end, though it's obviously very popular and there are people who clearly love it, it really wasn't my cup of tea. The meats and the bigger, chunkier vegetables were easy to cook and pay attention to; my cabbage leaves suffered an overcooked fate, as did my noodles and a few of the other vegetables, which sank to the bottom of the pot. The bottom line: If I'm going to have to work this hard for hot pot, then I'm going to have to find one with a broth that I really enjoy. Anyone have a good suggestion?

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