Zen Mongo offers do-it-yourself dishes, sometimes assembled to the beat of a disc jockey.
Zen Mongo offers do-it-yourself dishes, sometimes assembled to the beat of a disc jockey.
Kristen Karlish

Hot Off The Grill

I'm assuming the thing that is so thrilling about opening a Mongolian grill is that it's dirt cheap to operate and has fat margins. There's a specified roster of ingredients to stock and prep, labor is limited to drink-fetchers, a busboy, and a spatula swashbuckler who hovers over a griddle that looks like a Tyco drum with a fever. And besides, people generally don't eat their money's worth when they're permitted to indulge over food stations restricted only by the size of the bowl or plate that they clutch.

Zen Mongo Bar & Grill's first food station is covered with a spread of up-ended metal bowls that resemble pieces of Madonna's concert gear. Diced meats--beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, calamari, surimi, and whitefish--are placed into the bowls. The meats were fairly good, except the chicken wasn't drained and was stewing in a puddle of viscous slime, and the whitefish smelled...well, fishy. Next to the fish is a selection of pastas. The names of the ingredients in the bins below are scrawled on the above Plexiglas hood in what looks like pink lipstick.

After the flesh is chosen, it is lubricated with one from a selection of soy, olive, and canola oils. Then the bowl is carried to the raw-vegetable station to be filled with things such as water chestnuts, bean sprouts, carrot, tomato, and pineapple. Then it can be doused with sauces like lemon water, white wine, hoisin, garlic bean, Asian chili (a desperately wimpy slather), sweet and sour, and Szechwan.

After that, spices from a rather limited selection (didn't see any sesame seeds) can be shaken over your creation; dustings include lemon pepper, cayenne pepper, jerk seasoning, powdered ginger, and cumin. The spices come in aluminum shakers with tops that had stopped-up holes, making it difficult to season your culinary heap with much of anything.

After that, the stuff is given to the gentleman who is holding spatulas and hovering over the grill, and he flips it, shapes it, squirts it with stuff that looks like water from a plastic bottle, and pushes it against other people's dinner, so you get to sample whispers of other creations. It's here that you can also get tortillas or steamed rice, or request fried rice, which is essentially an ice cream scoop of rice deposited onto a fried egg, where it is pestered with spatulas until it is sufficiently sown with grill detritus.

Overall, the Zen stuff isn't too bad. The beef was gristly but good. The lamb was sweet and tender. It's just that some of the veggies weren't as fresh as they were advertised to be. Some of the broccoli florets were starting to yellow, the bean sprouts were limp, and the pea pods had some serious brown spots infecting their surfaces.

Spots, blemishes, and robust smears infected the glossy black lacquer tables too, which should be cleaned with window cleaner so that it doesn't seem as though you're dining in someone else's quickly evacuated mess. Zen is clearly more of a bar than a restaurant, with a curvaceous bar, lots of televisions, and a disc jockey who comes on certain nights.Don't go when they have a DJ. The last thing you need is to have your food cooked by a dancing Mongolian grill chef.


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