Mongols on Main Street


The logo shows a cuddly baby lamb wearing a bow tie, so it comes as no surprise that Happy Family specializes in lamb. At this cavernous Chinese restaurant on Flushing’s Main Street, choose a dozen delicious lamb dumplings crammed with meat and scallions ($3.95), 10 cumin-dusted kebabs that taste vaguely Middle Eastern (“lamb on a stick,” $10), a bowl of lamb stew scented with cilantro and garlic ($5.95), or for the more brazen, lamb testicles, hearts, and livers.

As the city’s only lamb-centric Chinese restaurant, Happy Family is well worth a visit. But lamb is just one of its specialties. Cut into the center of every table is a hemispheric depression that forms the staging area for Mongolian hot pot, a participatory meal that invites diners to swish raw ingredients through savory boiling broth, like a bolder, spicier version of shabu shabu. Some see an origin of this dish in the nomadic and warlike peoples of Mongolia, who boiled mutton in their overturned shields, while others claim the Chinese came up with the idea themselves, calling it Mongolian because the Mongols were famous for eating lamb and mutton. Of the three types of broth available at Happy Family—white, red, and herbal—most diners choose a combination of the first two. These do not actually combine in the cooking pot, but sit on either side of a metal barrier. The red is laced with chile oil, and if you fish around in the brown depths, you’ll discover a tea egg brimming with crushed red chiles, flinging extra heat into the broth like bolts of lightning. The red also tastes of cumin, once again suggesting a Middle Eastern flavor. I hasten to add that the Middle Eastern spicing can easily be explained by contacts between the Chinese and the Muslim Uighurs and Kazakhs of western China, without the intervention of the Mongols. There are also several inexplicable flavors in the broth, like whole nutmegs.

The white broth is a complete contrast, based on soy milk sweetened with the miniature Asian dates called jujubes, and also with brown Saharan dates. Any broth selection comes with a choice of meat, poultry, or seafood that is cooked along with napa cabbage, clear mung-bean vermicelli, spinach, taro root, dried bean curd, and other things that land, sometimes at whim, on your starter plate. In addition, there are dozens of items priced around $3 each that you can buy to throw into the pot, including black rice cake, cuttlefish balls, quail eggs, and the organ meats of various small animals. Connoisseurs agree that the real payoff is the broth that remains after all the solid parts have been scooped out with the perforated ladle given to each diner.

Then there is the appetizer menu, which includes the sorts of starters you see in the window of the nearby Szechuan restaurant Spicy & Tasty: mellow Chinese celery laved in sesame oil, beef stomach paved with Szechuan peppercorns—numbing your mouth more certainly than a trip to the dentist—and a version of the fried turnover called “chive box” (two for $3.50), better than you get at northern Chinese dumpling stalls in Manhattan and Flushing. By now you may have guessed: Happy Family, also known as Fat Baby Lamb, is currently the most comprehensive northern Chinese restaurant in town. And Mongolian or not, the food is spectacular.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 17, 2004

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