The concept of the Mongolian BBQ is a bit of a fuzzy sham, albeit a delicious one. Turns out the basic idea actually originated in Taiwan within the last 30 or so years and is far closer to Japanese-style “teppanyaki” cooking than the dried camel jerky and yak dumplings popular among the nomads of Mongolia.
The back story perpetuated by many of these types of eateries is that the soldiers of the ancient Mongol Empire went hunting for meat, overturned their massive shields above a bonfire and cooked dinner in them using their mighty swords to stir-fry whatever they could kill that day, presumably along with whatever vegetables happened to miraculously be in season during the continuous freezing-cold weather.
I do like the story, but in reality it’s not much more than a clever marketing device. By no stretch of the imagination would anyone confuse the cooks at Coeur d’Alene’s “Original” Mongolian BBQ with the ancient soldiers of Mongolia, but what they do does require quite a bit of old-fashioned skill.
It’s always fairly entertaining to watch them circulate around the cooking table, pushing the food to and fro and creating dramatic, sizzling storms of steam with squirts of water meant to keep things from sticking to the grill and becoming overcooked. There’ve been a few times when I’ve seen these guys do some fantastic tricks with my future dinner, including cooking behind their backs and using their long sticklike utensils to swoop the finished meal up into the air and then catch the whole thing with one of the serving bowls without dropping so much as a broccoli crown on the floor.
It must take a lot of practice and a certain amount of talent to be able to fling unwieldy mounds of noodles, meat and veggies around with such effortless precision. I’m certain I’d have the fire department there in 10 minutes after my attempts at culinary flamboyance resulted in flash fires and first-degree burns on my hands and face.
On my recent lunch stop into the restaurant, the men working the sizable round grills were comparatively mellow in their performance. It was a lazy Sunday early afternoon and the crowd was nowhere near as hectic as I usually encounter. Scanning the other diners, I concluded that this must be where the attractive church-going hipster crowd of Coeur d’Alene decides to meet for their post-sermon lunches.
For those who aren’t familiar with the setup, you choose between three bowl sizes, big, bigger and biggest, then travel down a long buffet, filling your bowl with your own personalized selection of raw ingredients. The beef, pork, and chicken are sliced micro thin and kept frozen for more even cooking. When you reach the end of the line, you pour ladles full of different cooking sauces and oils atop your mound, and then the cook does his swift magic right in front of you while you wait.
Usually I like to load up on the noodles, but I decided to avoid them entirely as a precaution against wrecking my diet, leaving more room in my bowl for nutrient-rich veggies. As I went down the line, I selected broccoli, carrots, celery, red onions, pineapple chunks, mushrooms, baby corn, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and, somewhat regrettably, a handful of very ripe jalapeños. I piled iced chicken shreds on top and poured on countless scoops of the Mongolian sauce, the Thai peanut sauce and the garlic sauce, finishing with a generous amount of the red hot oil.
What I ended up with was a hot mess, in the most appetizing way possible. I located the table where the hostess had dropped off my lemonade, unwrapped my chopsticks and let the steam and mouthwatering aroma waft into my face for a moment before digging in. Bam! I had bought myself a one-way ticket on the express train to Extra Spicy Land.
I’m usually able to tolerate the most wickedly peppery of foods, but apparently my sinuses didn’t get the memo that day. The combination of the plentiful jalapeño slices and the scoops of hot oil had teamed up to wreak havoc on my senses. The hostess dropped by to ask how everything was and I grimaced and choked “just great, thanks” as tears poured down my face like I had just learned that “Ugly Betty” was canceled.
Mercifully, they do supply heat-absorbing sides of plain white rice for fools like me who end up in such a piquant situation. Once I picked out the jalapeños, I was able to enjoy the flavors of the sauces and other ingredients, and as I ate, the meal became increasingly palatable and satisfying. The fortune cookie the hostess brought with my bill was a nice final touch, and as I paid for my meal, I thanked them graciously for the kind service and the mind-bending, life-altering endorphin rush.