An Existential Question Posed by Kublai Khan Crazy Mongolian Stir-Fry

I had a lot of questions on my first visit to the new Kublai Khan Crazy Mongolian Stir-Fry on Milam: Why is there a weird indoor-outdoor bar greeting customers when they first walk into the heavy double doors? Why did a waitress take our drink orders and then claim that she didn't? How can having so much raw meat piled up on a buffet be a good thing?

But one question troubled me most, and it was this: What if I love the stir-fry dish I come up with but forget the ingredients I chose? I'll never be able to re-create that dish again.

Indeed, there are thousands upon thousands of possible recipes one could create by walking his tray down the cafeteria-style line, filling his stainless steel bowl with everything from raw octopus and cabbage to Thai curry powder and rosemary. It feels a little like an episode of Chopped, in which you're both creator and judge of your final dish.

I found the selection of raw materials overwhelming and can only imagine what terrifying creations had been Frankenstein'd to life in the woks of the line cooks you hand your bowl off to when you're finished blindly dumpling ingredients into it so that the people in the line building behind you don't shove your face into the sneeze guard out of impatience.

My own first attempt wasn't so bad, a vermicelli-based dish that featured three big scoops of "curry coconut sauce" along with shrimp, octopus, bok choy, snow peas and a few other handfuls of random greens. I'd also added something called "seafood salt," another blend called "Thai spice" along with ginger oil and a spoonful of grated ginger, but the dish lacked the depth necessary to be truly good. It needed a lot more salt and a lot less cinnamon, which had apparently been the chief component in the Thai spice blend.

This is where it's a real struggle to create something palatable at Kublai Khan. Although some ingredients are helpfully labeled as gluten-free, you don't really know otherwise what's in them. I could smell the cinnamon in that Thai spice blend, but I didn't realize it would be quite so overwhelming. And what else is in seafood salt? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe cayenne and cumin?

You need to stick to the guide that's inside each menu, which tells you exactly how to construct kung pao chicken or pad thai from the vast array of sauces, spice blends, oils, noodles, meat and produce. Going off the beaten path is dangerous.

My boyfriend made an utterly horrifying concoction that we ended up calling "breakfast noodles," thanks to some surprisingly sweet Chinese-style sausage (who would have guessed it was so sweet?), potatoes that were scorchingly hot outside and raw inside, bell peppers and an egg that had been scrambled in, fried rice-style. We spent the rest of our meal trying to figure out what could have possibly tasted good with that sugary sweet sausage and what future ingredients to avoid entirely (the potatoes were No. 1 on that list) should we ever decide to return.

I was close to calling it a night and writing Kublai Khan off entirely, when our waiter reminded my boyfriend that a second (and third, and fourth) bowl is just $2 more.

It was a fresh start. A chance to make something better. An opportunity to build on past mistakes. Little risk, with the possibility of a great reward.

We accepted the shiny new stainless steel bowl and set out to conquer the line once again, this time with a different understanding and the freedom afforded by failure. I was no longer concerned with the troubling question of remembering how to create a dish. All I cared about now were the thousands upon thousands of possibilities that lay ahead.

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Katharine Shilcutt