• Mike Sula
  • Special hot & spicy (ma la) and Mongolian herbal, Little Lamb Hot Pot

Amid Chinatown’s recent restaurant boom, hot-pot joints in particular have proliferated. The city’s army of young Chinese students and professionals can’t seem to get enough of this communal feed. Some have come and gone, but many have endured, and there doesn’t seem to be much sign they’re slowing down. In fact, chains from mainland China have gotten in the game, the latest being Little Lamb Hot Pot, located in the long-vacant former Penang space, the first midwestern outpost of an international franchise with close to 600 locations across the globe. Little Lamb started 14 years ago in Inner Mongolia, and its shtick is that it specializes in an herbal lamb broth developed by a monk that was supposed to beef up the soldiers he looked after. It’s said to be infused with stuff like astragalus, licorice, desert cistanche, and sand-shallot seeds, and there are indeed a few hard, inedible things bobbing around in it. But that particular broth is fairly mild, which is a good reason to order a couple of varieties. They’ll arrive at the table in separate compartments in the same pot, and set on a burner at the center of the table.

There are a dozen different broths to choose from, including a Sichuan-style spicy ma la broth, Thai tom yum, mushroom, tomato, and an intriguing “lamb haggis” that I’ll have to report on sometime in the future. As with any hot pot the broth’s flavor is augmented throughout the course of the session by whatever you dunk in it, and there’s an impressive selection: 14 different kinds of meat (including beef tongue, tripe, lamb, and pig’s blood tofu), nine different kind of seafood, nine meatballs, five mushrooms, over three dozen different vegetables, and, of course, noodles. Some strategy is required in constructing your soup. Quick cooking things like noodles should go in last, obviously, but proteins should go in early to deepen the flavor. Whatever you do, when the staff comes around to refill your pots, don’t allow them to dilute your ma la broth with the milder lamb broth. It happens.

You’re provided with little strainers to scoop out the various tidbits, and deliver them to your individual bowl, and there are a handful of dipping sauces to go from there—things like soy, vinegar, and chile oil. Noodles are great with the chile oil and a tahini-like sesame paste, with which you can make an approximation of dan dan noodles. There is a supplementary menu of Mongolian barbecued items—lamb ribs, chicken wings, shrimp, etc.—plus some noodle and pancake dishes, most of which are alluringly inexpensive. But the hot pot itself is the real value here. Unlimited amounts of the individual broths are priced in the $3-$4 range, while the great majority of the items (apart from the meats) go for $3-$5 a serving.

Little Lamb’s great appeal—not unlike a Korean barbecue joint—is that it offers certain instinctive primeval pleasures apart from the food. It gives you the sense that you’re out on the steppes among Genghis Khan’s hordes, feasting around fires and dividing up the plunder.

Little Lamb Hot Pot, 2201 S. Wentworth, 312-225-0600, littlelambchicago.com