I always feel that I am a hot pot fanatic. Since I had tasted the first hot pot many years ago, I have felt that it's the most comforting of all comfort foods. Hot pot is a very popular type of table top cooking in China, Taiwan and Japan. I'm not sure if this is the case in Korea though. In Japan, this type of cooking is called Shabu Shabu. I think I like both the Chinese and Japanese hot pots equally. But today I realize I'm quite ignorant to believe that I love "Chinese" hotpot as if all the Chinese hotpots I had could represent all the hot pots in China.
Today, one of my clients in Torrance took me to a popular hot pot restaurant for lunch. This restaurant is called Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot Restaurant (2575 Pacific Coast Hwy, Torrance, CA 90505). My client took me there because he knew I was always craving for hot pots and he heard lots of good reviews on this restaurant. Adventurous as he is about food, he took me there because he wanted to experience what hot pot dining was like. In any kind of adventure, there is of course the risk of a bad ending. And that's exactly the case for us today. We didn't enjoy our lunch. There was the early sign that told me this restaurant wouldn't be my cup of tea. The decors are good and the restaurant appears to be clean, modern and spacious. But after I settled in my seat, I had been smelling some kind of weird smell that made me nauseous. At the beginning, I wasn't quite sure what it was. The smell was musty, gamy, and somewhat herbal (not the refreshing smelling type of herbal fragrance like our shampoos, but some very foul smelling herbs from some old Chinese grandma's herbal medicine pot that had been simmering on the stove for hours...)
Anyway, I thought after I started my hotpot, my table top cooking would generate such a nice aroma that I wouldn't notice the musty background smell anymore. So I ordered the $9.99 lunch special with the half and half broth bases (the house special broth and the house spicy broth at medium), which also included my choice of meat (US Prime with an additional $1.00) and a plate of mixed vegetables, tofu, four meatballs, and the buckwheat noodles.
When my hot pot arrived, that was when I realized the background smell that I disliked had become a lot stronger. It was coming from the pot of broth! But the broth looked very similar to the delicious ones I had tried at other hot pot restaurants that I love. I thought may be after the broths were heated up, the strange smell would change into the aroma I loved during the cooking process. So I waited anxiously for the arrival of my meat and veggies so I could dump them all in and start the cooking process. When the plate of food arrived, it was then I also noticed, the veggies were a little wilted. The tofu had a texture that was different from the kind I normally love. The mushrooms were also not fresh and firm. The meatballs and the meat didn't have the quality and freshness I expected either. May be I shouldn't expect so much from a lunch that cost only $ 9.99 when I normally paid the usual price of $20.00 at the other hot pot restaurants that gave me much fresher ingredients to cook with.
I really disliked the broths, both flavors generated the aromas that made me feel nauseous. The meat and meatballs weren't that fresh. The meatballs were not of good quality. I once had freshly made meatballs in one of my favorite hot pot restaurants, the good ones are always made of freshly minced meat that are hand molded into balls inside the kitchen. You can tell just by biting into them, they aren't the rubbery factory manufactured ones imported from China. If the meat and vegetables were disappointing, the broths certainly didn't make our lunch taste any better. I don't know what was put inside the broths that produced such musty and gamy aroma. May be it was the lamb bones? May be it was the medicinal herbs (not cooking herbs) they added to the broth (and you can see them floating in the above photo). I'm sure a lot of people like this kind of age old musty smell. But not me. I don't like the smell of Chinese medicinal herbs, and I don't like anything that smells gamy. But the sensation of smell is a subjective thing. May be this is just how the Mongolian hot pot is supposed to smell.
Both my client and I found this smell too foul for our taste and we had a hard time trying to get rid of it for hours... It stuck inside our mouth and our nose for the rest of the long day. It was rather unpleasant. So today is the day I finally realize that there is actually a certain style of hot pot that I can't stand.