Mongo Fury

BD's giant griddle supposedly mimics shields once used as cookware by Mongolian warriors, though we bet they didn't wear gimme gaps.
Stephen Karlisch

Mongo Man is a 9-foot "warrior mascot" who has the thankless job of traveling around to the various restaurants in the BD's Mongolian Barbecue chain. That means Mongo Man has the unenviable task of frolicking around some 26 locations from Texas (Las Colinas, Plano) to Colorado, Illinois and Florida.

Mongo Man kind of looks like a Weeble. Contact BD's marketing director, Heather Eppink, and you can have Mongo Man at your next event. We suggest someone in Dallas' corporate heavyweight community arrange for Mongo Man to attend the next pink-slip festival. Not that Mongo Man has particularly good shoulders for inconsolable weeping, since they're covered with armor, putting him at risk of rust and corrosion. It's just that the meals are so cheap (all you can eat for $9.99 at lunch and $12.99 at dinner) and they come with an endless supply of rice and flour tortillas, the latter handy for wrapping up leftovers or the spoils of numerous all-you-can eat raids to hoard for future meals.

BD's Mongolian Barbecue is one of those Mongolian do-it-yourself meals that test your facility with cayenne pepper and plastic ladles. It offers a large collection of recipes printed on colored paper for those who fear creating a culinary Frankenstein when left to their own devices. If you do go it alone, restaurant propaganda advises using at least two ladles of sauce and one ladle of oil. They also warn against getting prolific with spices that begin with "c" (cayenne, chili). BD's stir-fry process is tweaked to maximize both efficiency and that mud-pie lust in all of us to make a mess and eat it. The system is composed of separate islands that serve as bastions for various parts of your "Create Your Own Stir-fry," a phrase the company has trademarked.

The first island contains a salad bar with zesty grape tomatoes (a rare appearance in restaurants), feta cheese, carrot, cucumbers, mushrooms, lettuce infected with browning leaves, and so on. On the other side of that island are the meats. BD's has tubs of chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, cod, scallops, shrimp (cooked), raw eggs, cod and tofu. A strange thing happens when you create a commune of raw animal flesh. Not only is the appearance a little disconcerting, but the smell is...well, let's just say it takes a pretty gutsy vegetarian to breach that meat blockade and plunder the tofu tub without tossing his or her cookies.

Yet this is perhaps a trivial dilemma, one that most likely has a solution. Somewhere. This fume is not necessarily related to the freshness of the meat or a lack thereof. Meats have smells--a scent derivative of wet doggishness. Concentrating large quantities of these distinctive fragrances next to each other unavoidably creates a somewhat putrid vapor. Maybe a deeper chill in the station would curtail that a bit, but then you run the risk of creating a tub full of meat Popsicles.

Perhaps it's best to simply take a deep breath and tong some fleshy scraps into your bowl. From there you can move on to the vegetable island, where you can add water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, snow peas, pineapple, chopped baby corn, mushrooms, onions, bell pepper, diced tomato, pasta, broccoli and so on. Everything is vibrant and fresh. The only item here that gave us pause was the snow peas, whose green brilliance was pocked with scabby brown sores.

The next station harbors the sauces, spices and oils. Spices are dry, save for the cilantro. The setup includes several peppers, ginger, sesame seeds, mixed herbs, jerk spices, rosemary, dill, garlic and seasoned salt. The sauce/oil side of the island exposed a couple of glitches in BD's stir-fry system. Crocks of fluids were arranged in two staggered rows, which means that if you aren't fastidiously careful, ladle dribbles of whatnot will spill over into a crock of whatchamacallit. Of course, that doesn't really matter as much to you as it might to the next guy. But when you think of how many next guys have spilled olive oil--or worse--into the soy sauce, it starts to become a source of anxiety.

Which brings up another minor blemish: On one visit, the olive oil more resembled a knot of jellyfish than the fluid that greased Vito Corleone to prominence. Yet other than dribbles, this was the only crock gaffe. The rest of the sauces, which range from hoisin and sweet-sour to black bean and BD's Mojo, were diligent flavor enhancers.

From there, you take your bowl of distinctive whatnot and meat (tofu if you are a vegetarian) and present it to the cooks who sweat around a 7-foot griddle tossing the food around the hot metal surface with a pair of utensils that look like handled tongue depressors for Mongo Man. BD's claims that the evolution of the Mongolian grill as it is expressed in Plano (and Las Colinas) began centuries ago in--duh--Mongolia. There, Genghis Khan's hunting parties would gather on the banks of the Khan-Balik River and slice up meat and vegetables with their "razor-sharp swords" and cook them by searing them in their battle shields held over a raging fire.

This doesn't happen at BD's. Instead, food is seared over a grill surround by a semicircular counter, a sort of a viewing-theater perch that's cluttered with toys ranging from a stuffed lobster to a Trivial Pursuit game. Present your mélange to a griller and watch him or her dump it on the griddle and flick it a bit until it's done.

I once heard a story about a John Madden public speaking engagement where he waxed on about cottage cheese. He was bewildered how such a substance could be made, let alone invented. "How do you know when it's done?" he asked. "I mean, is it too chunky, or too runny? No one seems to know."

I thought of this cottage cheese mystery while watching the Mongo Man grill hands, who didn't look old enough to buy a Playboy magazine, let alone play with flames and spatulas. They dump the bowls on the griddle, coddle the food a couple of times with their griddle swords and then scrape it onto a black serving dish. The difference between the food that's dumped onto the griddle and the resulting stuff that's scraped into the serving dish is startling. Before it looks like food. When done it looks like something that came out of an old transmission. So I ask one of the grillers: How do you know when the food is done?

"I take a pinch and eat it," she says.

I give her a scowl, like I might be from the health department.

"No really," she says. "I try and pull [the meat] apart [with the spatulas] and see how much give it has. When it comes apart easily, it's done."

Just think how awful this test must look when administered to tofu.

Grillers do other things too, like bang a gong tethered to the wall off to the side of the grill. They strike the thing when someone puts a tip in the grillers' cookie jar, or when one of the grillers flips a piece of food into the serving dish with the spatula, or when there's a birthday, or for no reason at all. The incessant gong-banging creates a Mongo Man charm as enigmatic as cottage cheese.

BD's, which is named after Bill Downs, the owner of the prolific Ferndale, Michigan-based Mongo chain, has other things besides griddled mayhem. They have decent soups (gumbo and Wisconsin cheese on our visits), a full bar (which should be used sparingly when the gong is used prodigiously), and appetizers ranging from shrimp bombs to buffalo wings. The shrimp bombs are a set of pastry sticks stuffed with pulverized shrimp and cheese. They tasted a lot like Jeno's pizza rolls, a gustatory memory I personally wish to vanquish.

But BD's not only has fresh ingredients and a well-laid stir-fry plan. BD's also has a friendly, knowledgeable staff laced with a little fresh sauciness taking the form of jokes and sassy comebacks. It grows on you after a while, or maybe it's just easier to take after a couple of beers, which is what this food seems to go best with. If you don't count cottage cheese, that is.

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