Restaurant comparison - Mongolian style


My ample (some would call it luscious) frame isn't just good for making sure a small car doesn't skid on an icy road, it also is a good indicator that I like to eat.  And eating, I feel, is a major qualifier to discuss restaurants. 

Therefore, welcome to my first blog entry focused specifically on a restaurant.  I can't call it a review, necessarily, as I don't quite have the qualifications (or the disguise kit, or a paycheck for that matter) that a proper food critic would possess.  But without further ado, let's discuss Mongolian BBQ.

Simply put, at a Mongolian restaurant, you make your own stir-fry with raw ingredients (meat, veggies, starch, sauces and oils) from a buffet, then hand the dish to a cook who prepares it on a large steel grill while you stand and watch.  Once completed, the cook puts your food back in a clean bowl and you take your food back to your table.

Having been a customer of Genghis Kahn's Mongolian BBQ (725 N. Mayfair Road in Wauwatosa) for years, I didn't get particularly excited when BD's Mongolian Grill (598 W Northshore Drive in Glendale) opened.  Genghis Kahn's was closer to home and was plenty delicious.  However, curiosity (and an E-mail with a free meal for a birthday) brought me into BD's twice in a little over a week.

Atmosphere - Kahn's is located in an old Arby's (or was it a really old Burger King?).  It isn't large, or to be honest, particularly inviting.  For as many times as I've been there, I've never actually been greeted with a smile when I walk in.  By comparison, BD's is in a brand new building in the Bayshore Towne Center complex, and from the moment you walk in the front door you find yourself on Page 6 of the Official Chain Restaurant Fake Atmosphere manual.  We could have been in Applebee's, Cheesecake Factory or Red Robin.  On one visit we had to wait, but both times the hostess was bright, pleasant and all smiles.  The bar at BD's has four large screen TVs showing nothing interesting on either visit, and 21st century pop music being played a little too loudly (Side note; I don't understand something about 21st century pop music... Kids don't like it as they are into more hip-hoppy stuff, most adults don't need any music in a restaurant, but would prefer something known and comfortable.  To whom exactly did this music appeal to, why have it so loud, and shouldn't Mongolian music have been coming from the speakers instead?) - Edge to neither.

Variety of food - BD's had much more variety of food on their buffet.  They had the typical chicken and pork, two types of steak, sausages, a variety of seafood, multiple vegetable offerings, raw eggs, and about 20 sauces and a dozen other herbs or seasonings to choose from.  Kahn's offers chicken, pork, beef and lamb, most of the same veggies, but instead of sauces they offer flavored cooking oils (sesame oil, ginger water, etc). - Edge to BD's for variety, but I personally prefer Kahn's oils to BD's sauces.

Preparation - Although Mongolian is prepared on a large grill while you watch, both places accomplish this differently.  Kahn's has two cooks who each cook one meal and walk in circles around the grill, moving your food with them.  BD's has two or three cooks making ten meals at once, with each meal taking up a bit of real estate on the grill.  Watching BD's cook is a little like standing at the communion rail... ten people watching his or her food cook, making sure that someone else's slop doesn't sully the meal. - Edge to Kahn's, as Kahn's method mixes the food more completely while cooking, better distributing the flavors and spices.

Sides - Although the stir-fry portion is larger at Kahn's (one serving for lunch, all you can eat for dinner), they offer a small Chinese buffet of prepared foods as well, including Orange Beef, chicken wings and Sweet and Sour chicken.  Hot and Sour or Egg Drop Soup is usually free with the meal as is hot tea. BD's portion isn't quite as large (for lunch and dinner... a single serving is one price, all you can eat is a couple of bucks more) but the soup and salad bar is significant.  The soups, however, are decidedly American (on one visit was cheesy broccoli, the other was a tomato bisque) - Edge to BD's because although the soup and salad aren't particularly Mongolian, the buffet at Kahn's always seems like its been sitting there for eight hours.

Service - Very tricky to judge.  Again, straight out of the manual, BD's has typical chain restaurant service, meaning prompt, efficient service by someone wearing a T-shirt full of slogans or advertisements.  Seems so very fake.  On the other hand, Kahn's employees are dressed nicely but never smile, might check in during the meal (no refills on soda) and according to internet reports do not take undertipping lightly. - Edge to BD's because smiles are nice.

Taste - Some of my thoughts snuck out above, but Kahn's cooking method distributes the flavors better.  Also their cooking oils impart the flavor in each bite without making the dish heavy.  BD's sauces all are thick and sticky and coats food instead of flavoring it.  At either restaurant, it takes some trial and error of repeated visits to get the right combinations of flavors and oils or sauces.  For example at my first trip to BD's, I put a full ramekin of ginger sauce on my meal and I basically ruined it.  I ended up paying for the all you can eat dinner just so I could re-make it into something I could enjoy. Maybe if I tried more combinations at BD's, something would stick out.  But here is what I've learned to like in my meal - beef, scallions, onions, celery, green peppers, cilantro (lots of it), garlic, rice noodles, Szechwan flavor, sesame oil and a little ginger.  Making that base meal at BD's did not compare to what I've come to enjoy at Kahn's - Edge to Kahn's by a large margin, but because of the variety, your tastes may give you a different result.

For both location and taste reasons (as well as my disdain for chain restaurants when an independent restaurant is available), I will likely lean towards Genghis Kahn most times.  But the artificial atmosphere and variety is far better at BD's, so I can see going there again, especially with a group of people.

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