The cuisine known as Mongolian BBQ is making the mother of all culinary comebacks.
Legend has it that Mongolian BBQ was invented in the 13th century by the army of Kublai Khan when the cooks fried up shredded meats and vegetables on a warrior's shield placed over a fire. Reality may be a bit more prosaic (it's actually Taiwanese), but that hasn't stopped the PR departments of several new Mongolian BBQ chains from resurrecting the myth.
For the uninitiated, Mongolian BBQ is a mix-and-match, do-it-yourself, stir-fry buffet. At its most basic, there is a meat station (beef, pork, chicken), a vegetable station (traditionally shredded cabbage and maybe carrots) and a sauce station (garlic-soy based, usually hot or mild). Grab a bowl, pile high your choice of meat, veggies and sauce, and hand it over to the cook for stir-frying on a giant, round 600°F iron griddle.
What makes traditional Mongolian BBQ unique is the preparation of the meats. The meat is frozen into solid blocks and then shaved into thin strips. Piles of these frozen meat chips are then made available on the buffet.
Legend states that during winter the Mongol warrior's hunting catch would be frozen by the time they got back to camp, and they would use their razor-sharp swords to shave off pieces for faster cooking. But in reality I think it's mainly a matter of presentation and cleanliness.
As an added benefit for those with health concerns, there's no hiding a dirty kitchen in a Mongolian BBQ restaurant because all of the food and cooking surfaces are right in front of you in a kind of DIY mise en place.
I first experienced Mongolian BBQ in the late eighties in Los Angeles when I frequented Colonel Lee's Mongolian BBQ on a then-decrepit block of Hollywood Boulevard near Western Avenue.
Famously patronized by B-list actors and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in between recording sessions, Colonel Lee's was a real hole-in-the-wall run by a tiny Korean woman named Miss Lee and purported to be a reformed "lady of the night."
Patrons would form an orderly line at the buffet, pile high meat and veggies, and then come face-to-face with Miss Lee manning the sauce jars. Then, in a Seinfeldian Soup Nazi kind of way, she would lock her gaze on you and blurt out "SPICY OR NO SPICY!" Regulars knew there was a third way and would often retort "MEDIUM SPICY!" resulting in a nod of approval and a ladleful of sauce from each jar being doused onto the bowl and the whole thing tossed on to the griddle for cooking.
Alas, some years later the L.A. transportation authority did what the health department never could -- it shut down Colonel Lee's for good when it built a shiny new subway station on the same block.
Many years later and back in Houston, I was relieved to find a traditional version of the cuisine at Hans Mongolian BBQ in Webster. Located in a down-at-the-heels shopping center at the intersection of I-45 and Nasa Road 1, Hans is presided over by a gregarious but curmudgeonly Taiwanese-American gentleman who is not shy about informing you that Mongolian BBQ is neither Mongolian nor BBQ, but rather Taiwanese stir-fry. Don't let the shabby decor fool you -- every time I have been there it has been immaculately clean. And as far as I know this is the only Mongolian BBQ in Texas that uses the frozen and shaved meat preparation.
Up north, the new Mongol on the block is an outfit called Kublai Khan's Crazy Mongolian Stir-Fry (mercifully -- or perhaps wisely -- they didn't spell "crazy" with a "k"). Located at 290 and Hollister, this locally-owned restaurant takes the Mongolian BBQ concept to the next level.
The Kublai Khan buffet offers a dizzying array of meat, seafood, veggies, fruits, nuts, spices and sauces in an upscale atmosphere. Skipping the traditional frozen and shaved meat preparation, their meat is presented raw and unfrozen (though fresh and clean in refrigerated bins).
Every time I have been to Kublai Khan the service has been friendly and helpful, and the buffet clean and well-maintained. The quality of your food is, literally, up to you. It may take a few trips to find the best combo of ingredients. The staff is always willing to help out if you're not sure where to start.
So which Mongolian BBQ is best for you -- "old school" with Hans or "hip and happening" with Kublai Khan?
Both of these establishments are well-run local businesses that deserve our patronage. I recommend you try both.
As for me, Hans evokes the most memories of my Mongolian BBQ glory days in Los Angeles. Every time I go there and sit down in one of those cracked vinyl booths, I half expect to see Anthony Kiedis and Flea chowing down a few booths away, serenaded by the voice of a tiny Korean woman bellowing out "SPICY OR NO SPICY!"
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Hans Mongolian BBQ
20814 Gulf Freeway
Webster, TX 77598
Kublai Khan Crazy Mongolian Stir-Fry
13708 Northwest Fwy.
Houston, TX 77040