If you spend much time dining in local Chinese restaurant clusters like Chinatown, Allston and Quincy, you’ve likely heard of Mongolian hot pot, sometimes called by its Japanese name, shabu-shabu. If you haven’t experienced this bit of communal cookery, where you poach a variety of raw meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles in a pot of aromatic broth right at your table, you should: It’s fun, delicious, healthy and a bargain. Its growing popularity is evidenced by the chain Little Sheep, which started in Mongolia, expanded to more than 300 outlets in Asia and North America, and is now owned by American fast-food behemoth Yum Brands. Despite the name, the new Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square is an outlet of Little Sheep, and as a rule The Improper shuns chain restaurants. But we’re hooked despite the fact it has the same corporate parent as the lamentable Pizza Hut and KFC.
For starters, the restaurant is handsomer than most fast-food joints, with seafoam walls, bentwood chandeliers and dark wood accents. It also features actual table service, with friendly servers guiding neophytes through the ABCs of ordering, cooking and eating hot pot: choosing a broth ($3.95 per person) and the goodies to cook in it, how long to simmer each ingredient, how to fish them out with provided ladles and strainers. Your chosen broth arrives in a metal pot (divided in the center if you’ve opted for two broths) and heats on the induction burner in your table’s center. “Original” broth is slightly opaque, based on chicken stock (almost certainly from a base, not chicken bones and parts long-simmered in the kitchen) and dotted with aromatics like whole garlic cloves, scallions and whole spices like white cardamom pods and nutmeg. Spicy broth amps up the original by adding fiercer whole spices (like star anise and red cardamom) and a boatload of dried chilies. This broth is incendiary to start with, and it gets progressively hotter and more numbing as it cooks.
Meat and seafood options are of good quality and arrive in generous portions. Thin-sliced, fatty meats like supreme lamb shoulder ($8) and Kurobuta pork shoulder ($8) require only a quick swim in the broth to cook through. Meatballs of beef, lamb, shrimp and surimi fish on the house meatball plate ($12) are delicious, though not everyone will love the rubbery texture of the fish. There are fascinating lessons to be gleaned from the seafood combo platter ($12) of shrimp, calamari and fish fillets, like the flavor difference between barely cooked and fully poached flounder, or how squid goes from tender (and tightly curled) when barely cooked to tough almost immediately and back to tender after a long while.
The greens in the veggie combo platter ($12) offer similar variety, with almost instant-cooking options like watercress and young spinach contrasting with crisp, longer-cooking leaves of baby bok choy and napa, plus starchy vegetables like daikon, potato slices and sweet corn that need a long soak. A mixed mushroom basket ($10) delivers a heaping, gorgeous assortment of fresh enoki, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, while the tofu combo platter ($7) embodies three diverse textures: silky soft tofu, firm and multi-celled sponge tofu, and outwardly crisp, chewy fried tofu. For some reason, Happy Lamb discourages the ordering of side sauces (50 cents each) for dipping outside the pot, but I found these particularly welcome with those healthy but bland tofu items, especially the funky, fishy brown sauce that is shacha, the nutty sesame paste and a ferocious condiment of chopped garlic in sesame oil.
Good late additions after the broth absorbs prior ingredient flavors include quick-cooking fresh noodles like wide potato noodles ($4), which turn translucent when done and have a fantastic chewy texture, or more familiar wheat noodles like yellow-tinged thick noodles ($4) and pale udon noodles ($4). Another starch that needs the merest splash to soak up broth while retaining some crunch is Chinese fried donut ($3), rather like a Dunkin’ plain cruller cut into chunks. Servers revisit frequently to keep the pot simmering, not boiling (you can fiddle with the heat control, too), and to top off your broth; beware the cooking-time lag that each addition of fresh broth adds.
Additional sides include fine versions of Mongolian beef pie ($7), like a scallion pancake stuffed with a thin layer of minced beef, and house dumplings ($7) of pork or lamb. The short dessert list includes yam mochi with red bean filling ($4), a brace of dense, golden, donut-like pastries with the sweetness of pureed adzukis. Beverages are limited to complimentary pots of good tea and sugary soft drinks like flavored iced teas ($3) and American fountain sodas ($2). In the end, Happy Lamb takes the suspicions one rightly ought to bring to a corporate cousin of Taco Bell and banishes them with first-rate ingredients, nicer atmosphere and the inherent wholesomeness of hot pot as a cuisine. Boston has locally owned hot pot restaurants with superior broths, but Happy Lamb is that rare mega-chain outlet that you can patronize without shame or post-prandial regret.
-Half-and-half pot of original and spicy soup bases
-Supreme lamb shoulder
-Seafood combo platter
-Veggie combo platter
-Mixed mushroom basket
-Wide potato noodle
-Mongolian beef pie
Happy Lamb Hot Pot, 485 Mass. Ave., Cambridge (857-285-6933) littlesheephotpot.com
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11:30 am-2:30 pm, 5:30-9:30 pm; Fri., 11:30 am-2:30 pm, 5:30-10 pm; Sat., 11:30 am-10 pm Reservations: Yes Parking: Metered street parking, nearby public lots and garages Liquor: None