Bowled over

When I was young, our family used to go to the local Sizzler on special occasions. My mother loved the salad bar. Not because she was watching her weight. To the contrary—it was all-you-can-eat.

She loved to pile everything under the sun on a 9-inch plate. At the table, she would command us—a family of five—to break the cardinal rule of all-you-can-eat and share her mountainous plate of earth’s vegetation. Every time we leveled the mountain, she would march to the salad bar, bringing back ever more monstrous creations. I would sheepishly nibble, all the while averting the gaze of passing strangers.

Since then, I have avoided all-you-can-eat places. But I am a curious person. I let the crowds at Great Wall Mongolian BBQ on Howe Avenue draw me in.

Let’s dispense with some quick questions about Mongolian BBQ. 1) Is this real Mongolian food? Well, not really. Historically, the Mongolian diet was based largely on mutton, beef and other domesticated animals. Our Western version of Mongolian food is largely Chinese-influenced, meaning lots of vegetables and spices. 2) So where does Mongolian BBQ come from? Legend has it that Genghis Khan and his army, after a hard day, would gather what meats, vegetables and spices they could, toss them together and cook on their shields over an open flame. Who knows if this is true, but that’s what you’ll find in Mongolian BBQ today: meats, vegetables and sauces cooked on a large metal drum-like grill.

Mongolian BBQ is a cooked, Chinese rendition of an American salad bar. You walk in, a hostess seats you, and then you immediately get in line, where you pile as many meats, vegetables and noodles as will fit into your medium-sized bowl. At Great Wall, there are no fewer than 15 types of vegetables, several types of sauces (e.g., teriyaki, house, lobster, kung pao), and a handful of meats to choose from. You ceremoniously hand your bowl to the grill person and, within two minutes, you get back a piping hot bowl of whatever it is you put in it. A wait-person has brought you “extras,” such as soup, fried rice, mini wontons, egg rolls, or biscuits, and maybe a bottled beer or glass of wine if you want. You consume it all. If it’s dinnertime, you are allowed to go back as many times as you like, until you become alarmed, then saddened by your own gluttony.

The experience sounds straightforward enough. But several problems exist with Mongolian BBQ, although they are, admittedly, of an existential (and I use the term loosely) nature. Let me illustrate: on my first round, I went for pork, beef, baby corn, water chestnuts, zucchini, broccoli, sprouts, cilantro, green pepper, green onions, mushrooms, garlic, onions, cabbage and spinach—dressed with ladles of teriyaki sauce, kung pao sauce, and spicy oil. The result? Pretty good. On my second round, I toned it down a bit. Into my bowl went noodles, green onions, tomato, lamb, turkey, cilantro and garlic, this time finished with lobster sauce. Again, good. The vegetables were tender and fresh; the noodles had great body and were springy. The sauces were straight-up. Only the recently frozen shavings of meat, tough as they were, were more appropriate as garnish.

Yet while each bowl had been distinctive, filling and tasty, they had no concrete identity. They were simply piles of food cooked with a random selection of spices and sauces, resulting in a cacophony of unintended and vaguely familiar flavors. Like my mother’s monstrous salads, which were not identifiable as Caesar, Cobb, Nicoise or Waldorf, my creations were likewise chaotic and unknowable. My inability to place them into a food schematic troubled me, and I left feeling full in the stomach but confused in the head and empty in the heart.

Granted, the need to find an identity and place in the universe for every bowl of food may be a problem particular only to me. In fact, others may say of the same experience, “How fortunate to find a restaurant where one can eat a variety of vegetables, as many as one wants, with a plethora of sauces and practically no oil! For under $10!” Yes, Mongolian BBQ can be healthy and cheap. As for the Great Wall, it’s inexpensive, no-frills, with a college-age clientele—not exactly for the well-heeled crowd.

But times are tough and the weather’s cold. With the current austerity coupled with the burgeoning need for simple comfort food, surely one might kick off the Pradas for a night, don the sneakers and have a bowl or two of piping hot, existentially challenged Mongolian BBQ.