Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Flushings, NY - Fat Baby Lamb

"Happy Family". "Fat Baby Lamb". These aren't poor translations of Chinese symbols on an Asian-themed westernized poster; these are two names by which a lamb-specializing hot pot restaurant chain goes by. It has locations on both coasts, in L.A., CA, and Flushings, NY, at very least.

After a day of flying and a dinner of finger food (chips and guacamole, some blandly uninspired fried calamari, decent breaded chicken fingers, buffalo wings, congealed-cheese quesadillas, and their version of cheese pizza) at a Singapore entrepreneurial networking social, this was my first "real" meal back in New York.

Luckily, we had a chauffeur, so we didn't have to take the bus from Manhattan to the Chinatown located in suburban Flushings; we only had to compete with hordes of poor Asian drivers screeching for the same parking spaces that we were. And I thought I was an aggressive driver. Not anymore.

Happily, it didn't take us long to find the restaurant with a little help from a Chinese-mumbling elderly lady who kept trying to push pink pamphlets in our faces. Once we had passed through the door with an adorable smiling lamb (probably blissfully unaware that its breathen had been slated for countless tummies, otherwise it wouldn't have been so cheerful-looking), we found ourselves in a well-lit area with light blue and fluffy white cloud-painted ceilings and little red lantern lamps hanging incongruously from the 'sky'. We had barely seated ourselves, when we found a partitioned hot pot full of soup pushed onto the heating element in the center of our table. I've been to a few hot pot places, but I have no idea what defines 'authentic'. This, however, was entirely different from setups I'd previously seen.

Apparently, there are three broths from which you can choose from: white, red, and herbal. The two most popular are the white and red, which is probably the reason why we got those without being asked if we had a preference. The white broth is soy milk-based, and had a glistening smattering of oil, as well as accents of sliced, narrow ginseng roots, dried longan, dried wolfberries, dried red dates, dried (brown) Saharan dates, entire garlic cloves, and green onion shoots. It was mildly redolent of herbal soups, but besides that, didn't have much flavor. The other side featured a clear, spicy broth with chili oil, entire dried red chilies, cumin, nutmeg (which I couldn't personally identify), sesame seeds, and garlic.

We were given two plates of base ingredients to dunk into our soup, for the total price (soup + two dishes) of $20. One plate was covered with Napa cabbage, spinach, a few corn on the cob segments, and sai fun (bean thread noodles), and the other plate was artfully stacked with playful curlicue rolls of paper-thin raw beef.

In addition, we also ordered triangles of pork blood (which came out partially cooked to allow the blood to be sliced and presented neatly, so it only needed to be dunked into the broth for a few seconds before being eaten), two plates of pea sprouts, fish balls, and some more sliced beef. Hot pot is really a light meal, partly because the ingredients aren't that high in fat/oil, and partly because you have to wait for the food to be cooked, so you can't wolf down large quantities of food in a short amount of time. Personally, my favorite part of the meal was liberally dousing my vegetables and noodles in a make-it-yourself sauce of Chinese 'barbeque' sauce (dried ground shrimp, chili oil, etc.), ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and cilantro, graciously made by my eating companion and shared with the table. The red soup was a bit on the spicy side and lacked a deep flavor, while the white broth was completely placid on the taste buds. I found a happy medium in combining the two soups in equal amounts. Peppery-warmth calmed by subtle creaminess was just right for the winter weather.

We left with warmed and filled tummies, and finished off the afternoon with boba, warm tea, an iced lychee smoothie (sadly, icy, not creamy, as I hoped it would be), and an artery-clogging, tongue-licking treat of carefully shaved, gelatinous translucent tendon slices generously coated with salted chili oil and chopped green onions for $4 in a food court. Delicious~


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