Mongol Hoard

At the Iron Grill, pile your plate with the wrath of Khan.

So the packages have been gutted, the room strewn with ribbons and boxes and bows. The turkey has been eaten, bellies filled, tempers have flared, apologies offered, and in general the post-holiday blues have set in. Quick, now is the time to grab someone who has had just a wee bit too much of the holidays, perhaps one of those people who give too much or love too much or love people who love and give too much, and offer a moment's respite. What could be more appropriate than the ancient tradition of Mongolian barbecue?

You just knew I was going to say that, didn't you? Because you're clever. And because even you know that during the Yuan Dynasty that bad boy Genghis Kahn invaded China and brought many things, some dubious in nature, but one nice thing he did was introduce Mongolian barbecue. The official story is the mighty Kahn troops camped by the great River Khan-Balik and prepared slivers of meat (we don't know of what nature) and seared their food on their heated-up shields. Hence: an iron grill.

Yeah, it's hokey, but I got it off the menu. But what is fun, with or without the historical footnote, is to visit the Iron Grill and watch those muscular, buff line cooks wield those oversized chopsticks on that huge, giant, flat iron wheel. Now, that's a gift just about anyone can enjoy.

When you visit the Iron Grill, chances are the staff will be busy, so here's the heads up. Get in line at what looks to be a buffet. Be sure to read the signs on the wall that will instruct you in the nature of a Mongolian barbecue. Most people do not read the signs. They are accustomed to salad bars and buffets where you shuffle and grab items and place them on your plate or in your bowl. Perhaps your companions will be in holiday stun mode as well, so you can look informed and intelligent if you gently steer them through the line, coaching them that in fact you are assembling a plate of food that is going to be cooked.

Know ahead of time that vegetables cook down rapidly. Your selection of cabbage and mushrooms and bean sprouts can be liberally heaped up since they will shrink considerably. Now is also the moment to be choosy. If a tub is low in a certain vegetable or looks as if it's been sitting out too long, gently and politely draw this to a server's attention. The staff is very responsive, but we've noticed on more than one occasion that bins can get perilously low or perhaps sit out a bit too long.

The meats, however, are neatly labeled and frozen. This is how they should be presented, to prevent the onset of terrible illness. Help your comrades select the type of meat (or tofu or shrimp) they wish to have stir-fried with their bowl of noodles and vegetables.

Once you've assembled your now almost heaping bowl, now comes the critical moment. You'll be presented with an overwhelming number of sauces. Perhaps you're not a chef, or even a cook. If you are culinarally challenged, then READ THE WALL. It gives you several options for preparing the sauce for your meal. This is a critically important step, since some of these sauces are labeled things like "sugar water" or "chili paste" or "ginger water". You might not be inclined to ladle something like this over a bowl of raw food, but it is critical to flavor enhancement. If you know your way around a kitchen pretty well, then you might want to volunteer to help those around you since this is where the line seems to get stymied. People know what they like; they just don't always know how to make it. And if they end up with a plate of searingly hot noodles they can't eat, they're not likely to blame themselves. There is no chef to blame, so chances are good they'll end up kvetching to you because you didn't warn them. So be a Good Samaritan.

Of course the next step is the most fun because by now you've arrived at the actual Iron Grill: an enormous circular iron flat-top. This is what once might have been a shield, but is now a legal cooking surface. Two buff line cooks with enormous chopsticks will take your bowl and strew the ingredients across the searing hot surface. With a few flicks of those mighty chopsticks, first this way then that, your meal zooms around and gets seared before your very eyes.

Don't tarry too long; since they will bring your bowl to your table. Continue down the line where you can choose from soup, rice and Shiao Bien (grilled sesame bread). We found the soups to be gluey. The bread is oily, but serviceable. Order your beverage, pay the cashier, then sit and wait for your own glorious concoction to be delivered.

Once your dishes do arrive, notice the general contentment that settles in as those present bask in the fact that they didn't have to prepare one more meal. Those who haven't prepared a single holiday meal can enjoy the fact that they actually did something for themselves. And those in the crowd who still haven't managed to get quite enough to eat over the holidays will be pleased that they can pass through the line as many times as they want. Over and over, adjusting their flavorings and seasoning and generally making merry that the Big Day has come and gone, and finally, all is right with the world.

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