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Food Dude

Feb 2, 2012
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Mongolian metamorphoses

By Jim Duncan

A chef at work on the six foot, 650-degree grill at Bang Bang Mongolian Grill, 6240 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines, 440-2264. Hours are Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m to 10 p.m.

HuHot Mongolian Grill, 2310 S.E. Delaware Ave., Ankeny, 963-7860.
4100 University Ave., West Des Moines, 457-9090. Hours are Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Sometime between the Year of the Metallic Tiger and this new Year of the Water Dragon, our suburbs were invaded by Mongolian BBQ. Never having visited HuHot, Bang Bang or Mongolia itself, I talked to restaurant pros who have. Before opening their Alsatian restaurant Baru 66, David Baruthio and Sara Hill lived in Mongolia. They shared barbecue photos and stories in which Mongolian goats were slaughtered, butchered and placed in what look like old-fashioned 50-gallon milk cans — the kind that were used when cows were milked by hand. The cans were placed for hours on large rocks heated with wood fires.

Mongolian barbecues in West Des Moines and Ankeny differed a bit. (The genre, it seems, is a Taiwanese invention that never had anything to do with Mongolia or barbecue.) Montana franchiser HuHot claims 50 operating restaurants on its website. Faux Sticks murals and very loud 1980s rock music dominated the dining room on my weekday lunch visit. I was seated with an instruction manual/menu from which I learned to get in line, fill a single bowl with frozen meats (chicken, pork, beef) or pollock, a choice of three noodles, vegetables and sauces. I then took my bowl to a circular grill where chefs with machete edged spatulas fried it simultaneously with several other orders. Thus scraps mingled from one diner’s bowl to the next. My cooked dish was served on a platter. While transforming raw bowls into fried platters, chefs chopped everything into pieces sized for cats’ mouths.

Upon returning to my table, I discovered a bowl of white rice and a waiter asking if I wanted a soft drink, appetizers or desserts. Had I known about the rice I would have filled my bowl with a smaller percentage of noodles. I seemed to be the only clueless customer. The place quickly filled with enthusiastic folks filling multiple bowls.

Bang Bang is locally owned by Steve McFadden — who pioneered Mickey’s operations in town — and his wife Trisha. Its game plan resembled HuHot’s, but details were better specified. Their grill is six feet in diameter and heated to 650 degrees. Besides 25 sauces, they also provided a choice of 15 dry spices. In addition to the meats I found at HuHot, their weekday lunch included shrimp, scallops, cod, tilapia and whole baby squids — the kind more upscale restaurants should use en lieu of chewier cuttlefish rings. Bang Bang’s vegetable selection included a gluten-free section. Their unimpressive nacho bar (chips plus tired looking cheese, guacamole and sour cream) provided a fajitas option to the stir and chop fry.

Waiters appeared quickly to explain things. They also offered alcoholic beverages but discouraged the use of rice on the grill. I was told that a separate grill was available for anyone with food allergies or paranoia about their food intermarrying with a stranger’s food. Whole grain tortillas and brown rice were offered for fiber hunters. The sound track at Bang Bang was discrete and covered jazz, blues and softer rock than anything I heard at HuHot. Unlike HuHot, Bang Bang also maintained a large outdoor patio. The gentler ambiance encouraged me to order a “mini” Key Lime pie, which was large by my reckoning.

Bottom line — Both places employ a savvy business plan that reduces labor costs (with few or no prep cooks, kitchen managers and servers) while increasing seating space. Both offered dietary control by letting diners choose exact portion sizes of carbs, sodium, calories, cholesterol, etc. Prices were virtually identical, but Bang Bang offered more options and value with less noise for one‘s buck. Side Dishes

Tartine initiates a Thursday night Sips & Snacks program this week that pairs four wines (or beers) with four appetizers for $15… Trostel’s Greeenbriar celebrates its 25th anniversary with $25 three course dinners the week of Feb. 2-11. CV

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