A barbecue oasis
Kim Son Mongolian BBQ Vietnamese & Chinese Food
North Highlands, CA 95660
Kim Son Mongolian BBQ Vietnamese & Chinese Food isn’t just located in a rundown area known for its low median income and high crime—its North Highlands neighborhood is also a food desert. Besides Waffle Shop and El Parian Taqueria, almost all of the other eateries on Watt Avenue between Kim Son and the Highway 80 exit are fast-food joints. And although the food is similarly priced, all are horrible options compared to Kim Son.
The restaurant serves great Mongolian barbecue, despite actually serving neither Mongolian food nor barbecue. The dish in question is said to be of Taiwanese origin and invented in the 20th century, although there’s no authoritative written record of its history. Nevertheless, “Mongolian barbecue” has become synonymous with a stir-fried noodle dish cooked on a hot, circular griddle. And that’s what you’ll get at Kim Son, in addition to a selection of Chinese food and Vietnamese pho.
Here’s how Mongolian barbecue works at most places, including here: A server takes drink orders, and diners choose between Chinese food from a menu or the buffet-style Mongolian barbecue, where diners can grab a bowl to fill with raw ingredients. Once the dish is full, it’s up to the diner to season the food and then hand it over to a chef, who cooks it all and gives it back in a different bowl.
It’s a bit difficult to rate Mongolian barbecue by regular reviewing standards, because it’s the diner who chooses the ingredients and seasoning. But here’s what Kim Son does well: It stocks plenty of fresh veggies (carrots, spinach, mushrooms, yellow onion, green onion and broccoli went into mine); thin slices of meat (what appears to be chicken, pork, beef and lamb—they aren’t labeled); thick, chewy, alkaline chow mein noodles; a bunch of sauces (about a dozen, including cooking wine, a ginger sauce and a teriyaki sauce); and additional toppings (sesame seeds, minced garlic, Sriracha).
My dish came out piping hot, tasty and smelled like the smoky essence of the hot griddle. But it was also much too salty—an error in my attempt at seasoning. Chang’s Mongolian Grill in Folsom posts seasoning suggestions, and it’d be nice if Kim Son did, too. I ended up adding Sriracha, hot chili oil, and sweet-and-sour sauce (originally dipping sauce for complimentary egg rolls) to balance the saltiness with acid and sweetness.
On a different day, I grabbed a bunch of Chinese dishes for takeout: garlic shrimp, spicy tofu (one of the few vegetarian options), chicken wings and Kim Son Spicy Beef. It’s, unfortunately, the only flavorful, non-Americanized Chinese offering. The beef dish is seasoned with sha cha jiang, a sauce popular in Fujian, Teochew and Taiwanese cooking that is usually composed of minced garlic, chili, shrimp and a few other seasonings. In some Asian cuisine, it’s rubbed onto barbecue and called satay, but here, it’s just the best dish from an otherwise lackluster menu of Chinese food.
But even if the Chinese offerings here aren’t my favorite, the Mongolian barbecue is superb and highly recommended. The process challenges every diner to become the chef for one meal, figure out the most umami flavor combination and season the dish properly.
A few other positives: Despite being located in an old building in North Highlands, Kim Son is nicely renovated. Above the griddle is a large vent hood that keeps the diners from smelling like food, a common problem in other open-grill restaurants, but not here. And unlike some other Mongolian barbecue places, there’s no charge for takeout if you don’t finish your dish—which is highly probable, because the bowls are huge. In other words, it’s the perfect healthy, cheap and tasty alternative to fast food in North Highlands.