Every year Mike's stepdad takes all his kids and grandkids, besides us, to Mongolian Grill for his birthday. I know it seems weird for him to take the family out to dinner on his birthday. It just seems backwards. But Jerry loves to take people out to dinner and when he wants to pay, there's no arguing with him. Especially on his birthday!
He usually takes us out to another restaurant later. It's not because of any weird family rifts or drama that we don't join the rest of the family, but because he wants to make sure we can find something gluten free and vegan wherever we go- not always an easy task. So we stick to pretty much the same restaurants every time to play it safe.
When I was offered a complimentary dinner for two at bd's eMongolian Grill for reviewing purposes, I was pretty surprised to hear that they are seriously conscious about special diets at this restaurant. Of course I said yes- I had to find out if this place really was somewhere that we could eat without constant questions to our servers about ingredients. So here's my review. It's long. But I like to be thorough and I love the chance to give feedback to restaurants and eaters alike! Maybe it'll be helpful for you?
As soon as Mike and I arrived, we noticed that it smelled divine. Even in the parking lot. I calmed myself and remembered that I was really hungry and that free food always tastes better than food you pay for. I had to keep my snobby hat on and not be in love with this restaurant just because they fed me in my time of need. No one likes an un-critical food critic (except maybe the restaurants).
We sat in a booth in the corner and our server gave us the run-down on how this restaurant works. You get a bowl to fill with ingredients from the buffet, then you choose your sauces and spices, then you bring it to the gigantic grill and someone cooks it up for you while you watch. Pretty fun!
Our dinner came with 2 drinks, an appetizer, 2 entrées and a dessert. After reviewing the menu, though, we realized that there weren't any vegan appetizers or desserts. So it was just entrées for us. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me thinks that a restaurant isn't very vegan/vegetarian friendly when all the appetizers have meat in them (There might have been a vegetarian, but not vegan, nacho plate). And the desserts were pretty ice-cream-centric, so no luck for lactose-free/dairy-free people.
On the other hand, each dinner comes with a salad bar- basically an appetizer anyways. And, really, I don't like starting my meal with a super heavy fried egg roll or nacho plate (even a vegan one) before even choosing my real dinner. So I didn't really miss ordering from the appetizer menu. If the meal wasn't free, I wouldn't have even read it. I wonder how many people really order the appetizers when they plan on loading up their bowl with all those awesome buffet ingredients?
On the other, other hand (3rd hand?) their alcoholic drinks looked really fun and if I was there for just appetizers and drinks (which I never do, but I'm pretty sure regular people who drink do), I'd be disappointed (and really drunk) without something to order from the appetizer menu.
The salad bar was pretty standard: Crunchy lettuce, pepperoncini peppers (love), chickpeas and black olives were my favorite parts. I settled for French dressing when I didn't see a vinaigrette, but then saw the oil and vinegar bottles and switched to vinegar. Here's my snobbiness coming through- I just dislike those vats of food service quantity dressings. It reminds me of a cafeteria or hospital. French dressing is usually vegan, but is unnaturally orange and tastes like high fructose corn syrup. I consider it a lesser evil of the salad dressings usually available. There were also two soups on the salad bar: Beer cheese and clam chowder. Probably delicious, but couldn't eat 'em.
The atmosphere of this restaurant is very much unique and fun- that's their angle. So it was a bit out of place to see such a conventional salad bar in this place- even if our salads ended up being pretty good. My advice for Mongolian Grill? Add some more fun stuff to the salad bar: wasabi peas, pepitas, a sesame vinaigrette maybe? Something that ties the salad bar into the Mongolian theme or the fun, unexpected atmosphere of the restaurant. Or, really, skip the salad bar. There's sooooo many awesome veggies in the main course!
Here comes the part that will undoubtedly bring me back to this restaurant in the future.
You might be temped to skip the entire meat section, but do notice that you can choose rice noodles or other pasta here. I bit strange that it's under the heading of "meat", but it is indeed meatless. Then on to the veggies. I LOVE that they encourage you to "load 'em up" (the veggies) in their menus and signs. I chose: onions, mushrooms, edamame, broccoli, cilantro, water chestnuts and green onions. There were many, many more options to choose from, including tofu, pineapple, baby corn, jalapenos, apples (?!) and basically any veggie you could imagine putting in a stir-fry. Yum!!!
The sauce table was awesome for a condiment-lover like myself. The buffet was equipped with a guide for which sauces were vegetarian, gluten-free and both. The only vegetarian, but not vegan sauces were obvious, like alfredo or cheese sauce. It took us wayyyyy too long to decide on a sauce, but it was a tough decision. We asked the super-helpful guy who was around to explain the notations on the guide about MSG. Mike's sensitive to MSG and I'd just rather not eat it. They had symbols on several of the sauces noting that they contained natural sources of MSG, but none was added. I found it interesting that they noted it at all if it wasn't the synthetic form of MSG that more people have reactions to. He explained that those sauces contain hydrolyzed vegetable protein that contains naturally-occurring glutamate. I was impressed that he could explain this in a knowledgeable way- He really knew the food. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein isn't an ingredient I'm super fond of, but I don't ban it from my diet either. Chili-garlic sauce won!
I also added some extra garlic and chopped peanuts from the spices station. Here's some advice: you don't need to add extra chopped garlic to your chili-garlic sauce here. The sauce is already fabulously garlicky. I went a little overboard on the garlic, but lived to tell.
We let the cooks know that we were on special diets and so they cleaned the grill for us and put up dividers to keep it very separate from other meals being cooked. They offered to cook it in the back (I presume in a more easily sanitize-able pan), but we wanted the full experience of seeing our food cooked. Good to know that if you have a serious allergy they could do this, though. In no time our food was ready- that grill must have been VERY hot!
The taste? Crazy flavorful, veggies perfectly cooked. Just the right amount of spiciness in my chili-garlic sauce. No worrying that there might be fish in the sauce. Mike gave it the highest compliment: "This tastes like something I would cook for us at home".
Which actually leads me to what I like best about this restaurant: It gets people involved in cooking their food. Most Americans don't actually cook- that's pretty clear from looking at any conventional grocery store or food expenditure study. A restaurant that exposes people to not only actual cooking, but also to a huge array of healthy veggies and the opportunity to experiment with spices is a great nudge in the right direction. When you see how easy it is to throw great ingredients on a hot surface with a fun sauce and enjoy them in about 5 minutes, it's inspiring.
At least, I hope other people are getting that out of their experience.
I'm happy that we'll be joining our whole family for Jerry's birthday dinner at Mongolian Grill this year. They can eat their meat, we can eat our veggies and everyone gets what they want!
And now a treat for you! Leave a comment for me before Friday, Nov. 5 at midnight and I'll randomly pick someone to win a $5 off coupon for Mongolian Grill in Burnsville, MN. Sorry, folks outside the Twin Cities area. You'll have to settle for my photos, but you can still leave comments if you want.