Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Interesting and Intriguing Saga of Little Sheep Restaurant

At first glance, the Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot restaurant which opened up a few months ago on Azusa Ave. in Hacienda Heights is just one of a few hundred authentic Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. Yes, Mongolian Hot Pots are not as common as Hong Kong style cafes, but in the past decade there's been a healthy choice of restaurants of this genre that diners could patronize. But few restaurants have the intriguing past, as well the interesting future, associated with Little Sheep.

Little Sheep first came to my attention in 2003, when suddenly Dragon Regency Restaurant, a stalwart of Hong Kong style food for roughly two decades, was replaced by a new restaurant whose interior decor was a gigantic mural of the Chinese countryside with sheep roaming all over the landscape. This brand new Little Sheep restaurant, which introduced the Mongolian style hot pot to Los Angeles, was allegedly a branch of a famous restaurant chain in China. It proved to be a big hit, so much so that additional branches opened up in San Gabriel and on Azusa Ave. in Hacienda Heights.

Moving forward to 2007, a couple of interesting things happened. First, a poster on one of the Chowhound message boards noted that the main Little Sheep website in China did not mention any Los Angeles area branches, even though they did have a listing of their branches in North America. Subsequently, the Little Sheep locations in Monterey Park and San Gabriel both changed their names--the Monterey Park restaurant changed first to Little Fat Sheep and then Hot Pot! Hot Pot!, while San Gabriel became Sheep Young Young. The Hacienda Heights location closed down altogether. As it turns out, we had been punked. These were not really branches of the Chinese chain, but clever imposters.

Now this isn't the only time that locals have purportedly opened branches of famous Chinese restaurant chains. The Hui Lau Shan dessert restaurants in San Gabriel and New York not only stole the menu from the real chain, but they replicated the furniture from the real stores. A fake 85°C Tea House operated in San Gabriel until the real Chinese chain opened up in Irvine, and a fake Din Tai Fung has successfully operated in Toronto for many years. However, Little Sheep was an elaborate deception, which even fooled restaurant critics who routinely described the ersatz restaurants as being part of the Chinese chain.

But all that is in the past and now there is a real Little Sheep in Hacienda Heights, in the same shopping center but not the same exact space as the imposter from several years ago. But in the future, will there now be a Little Sheep on every corner? I just read in the New York Times that Little Sheep is going to be acquired by Yum Brands, parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Now this isn't totally off the wall, as the Little Sheep chain is hundreds strong in China. But as you know, besides independent freestanding locations, Yum Brands also operates mini-food courts having a KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut sharing space with each other. Do you think we'll be seeing Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot operations being added to these courts?

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