There was a crisp chill in the Downtown Naperville air on Tuesday evening as the echoing overtures of culinary competition drifted through the atmosphere with appetite apprehension. Driven by an insatiable hunger for full contact iron chef drama… and of course a little dinner… my wife and I moved through the light blanket of evening darkness further into downtown drawn by the ageless wisdom-stumping question… what are we in the mood to eat and how will we possibly choose between our many favorite downtown restaurants. The evening’s “mystery restaurant” was revealed and turned out to be… Mongolian Barbeque.
Okay, so maybe we enjoy Food Network a bit too much. We hadn’t been to Mongolian Barbeque since the Fall and thought it would turn out to satisfy both our appetite and time-frame. The chain concept seems simple enough… choose meat, veggies, seasoning and sauces and turn over to part iron chef/part college student-looking flatop grill cook to work their magic. You start at the seven o’clock position and then are quickly hustled around to the five o’clock position to await the completion of your food. Of course, your journey begins with three self-prep stations.
First, you begin at the meat station. Though they ask you to choose only one, your first glance at the scallops, shrimp, chicken, lamb, sausage, crab meat (imitation), and steak sends your sinister mind into overdrive envisioning a clever strategy to bend the rules. You think to yourself, “if I choose multiple meats and bury them deeply underneath the veggie choices, they won’t detect my violation until the food has been dumped upon the sizzling hot grill… by that time it would be futile for the Mongolian Barbeque police to send me back to the meat station to start over and make shameful amends.” Despite the guilt-drenched tension as you approach the grill with your illegal combined contraband of meats, you quickly realize these poor sweaty souls tapping rythmically on the grill with ear-piercing treble could care less about your meat combination.
Having piled on the meat, you proceed to the veggie station which is pretty straight forward in terms of a typical assortment of Asian stir-fry suspects. How do they make that broccoli look so green? Once you’ve completed your veggie selection and piled atop your meat, you suddenly realize you need a much bigger bowl. I always wonder if they keep a count of how many stray veggies they pick up off the floor on an annual basis.
The next stop is sauces and seasoning, which is the area the brain really begins to melt down as there are seemingly a million combinations you could choose from. Even more, there is no way to sample the sauces gracefully, thus I choose the “splash a little dab in the bowl and do the quick pinkie taste test while looking around to make sure nobody is watching” technique. The only sauce choice missing seems to be my mom’s pot roast gravy from my childhood days.
Next, it’s on to the fraternity of shogun showman who slave over the sizzling steamy grill day in and day out. One request if any of these iron chefs happen to read this tribute, if the latest fast tempo teen anthem song should happen to be playing on the restaurant sound system, it’s not particularly pleasant when you begin hammering out the rhythm on the grill with your twin set of Mongolian metal grill sticks. Also, do you really have to the use the same grill stick you just repeatedly poked the raw chicken with to rake my food off the grill?
Once your food is done and your steaming bowl of custom recipe stir fry is handed to you, please tip the grill dudes. Not only does it recognize their sweaty facial complexion sacrafice but they will also give you a few hits on the gong.
You head back to your table anxiously anticipating how your selection will taste, but please accept the most important tip of all. DO NOT IMMEDIATELY TAKE A BIG BITE OF YOUR CULINARY EXPERIMENT…. it’s uncontrollably steamy for a very good reason. The steam is a friendly omen that if you dare bring your mouth anywhere near the just released blazing grill fare wedged between your chop sticks, your tounge will descend deep into a painful fiery hell that will not only ruin your meal but serve as a Mongolian reminder for days to come.
My final note relates to my inability to understand who has any room left to eat the mile high slices of dessert the waitresses seem to constantly be carrying over their heads after completing the sizzling shogun safari.
Overall, Mongolian Barbeque is a fun experience featuring tasty food once you fine tune your preferences and recipe combinations. Avoid the waves of weekend crowds by walking right in and sitting down during any regular weeknight.
Be creative, bring the kids and have a good time.