From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mongolian Grills, Texas style.

A couple of weeks ago, a couple of good friends wanted to take us out to dinner.  Their suggestion was a Mongolian Grill with a unique name: HuHot.  I had never been there before, but the concept was not new to me.  I love the idea of creating my own meal, so I was looking forward to the visit. 

The search for true "Mongolian Dining will not end in truth there; bring a native to the restaurant and he’ll likely 1) wonder why there’s no mutton, camel, horse or yak meat; 2) comment on the pitiful lack of fat on the available meat; 3) recoil at the sight of any vegetables; and 4) inquire as to the nature of “samurai teriyaki sauce.”

The point is this: There’s very little that’s Mongolian about HuHot Mongolian Grill, though the shack’s brass will tell you that Genghis Khan and his marauding band of conquerors, lacking “traditional cutlery,” used their swords to slice thin strips of meat and vegetables, then used their shields to sear them over an open fire.
Then again, such inaccuracies are symptomatic of many Asian restaurants not only here in San Antonio, but in Ulan Bator as well. Yes, it seems that Mongolian barbecue has finally spread to the land of Mongols — BD’s Mongolian Barbeque (a HuHot rival) opened a franchise in the Mongolian capital last year. So be it, I guess. Why settle for authenticity when imitation will do just fine? Anyone up for mutton fat cooked inside the stomach cavity of a deboned marmot? I didn’t think so. Japanese teppanyaki it is, because that’s essentially what HuHot serves up.

The name itself is a bastardization of Inner Mongolia’s capital, Hohhot, which, in native tongue, means “Blue City” — a reference to the burg’s cloudless skies. HuHot replicates the effect here by suspending blue disc lights resembling vinyl 45s from the ceiling. Everywhere else, the décor is ablaze with fiery reds, oranges and disturbingly humorous murals of sinister beasts eating other beasts, a true representation of our carnivorous tendencies.
On to the rapacious extravaganza. Your nomadic journey begins as first you grab a bowl from a food station where an assortment of meats — chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, calamari, mussels and scallops and that quintessential Mongolian delicacy, alligator (alligator? just kidding) — lie partially frozen in metal trays. Then pile on your choice of noodles — ranging form udon style egg noodles to thin rice noodles and even Japanese yakisoba.   Head to the next station and dump any number of stir-fry–friendly vegetables into your bowl before pouring multiple combinations of the 20-plus sauces sitting in station No. 3. Five to seven ladlings of such sauces as “mild samurai teriyaki” and “spicy kung pao yow” are recommended for the fullest flavor. The penultimate stop before your journey’s end is the grill (a large, circular, heated steel tablet), where a trio of perspiring chefs cook up the contents of your bowl.

As we waited for them to meet us there, I wandered around the restaurant to familiarize myself with their set up. They had a plentiful supply of proteins available, including a great selection of seafood. (I had tried to give up red meat for lent, so this idea was working out well.) My favorite part of the seafood offering was the mussels, still in the shell. They had good fish and tasty calamari.

The results for me were mixed (in more ways than one).  At the very least, strips of meat should be offered, but in the name of cooking expediency, density is sacrificed. In addition, as much as I love sugar snap peas, their sweetness didn’t mesh well with the dish at all, though the sauce did pack a sufficiently peppery wallop.

Finding the right flavor combinations can be a challenge, and the suggestions HuHot provides don’t always work. So back I went into the fray, having lost the first battle, but determined to win the war. Round two featured more seafood, broccoli, yakisoba noodles, green beans, asparagus, celery and a mishmash of sauces — spicy barbecue, ginger, Szechuan and garlic chili. Again, the mealy texture of the formerly frozen vegetables sealed the fate of this dish, and the overabundance of greens even made it a tad mushy.

Ironically, this haven for meat-lovers will please vegetarians (a class of diners completely unbeknownst to most Mongolians), given the variety of fresh vegetables on hand.

Their vegetable selection left a little to be desired, as many of the choices were clearly vegetables that were put on the line in a frozen state, then allowed to thaw in their own water.  This left the green beans and asparagus tips a bit mushy.

The sauce choices were so numerous that I was not able to replicate my sauce profile on different dishes, despite going back 3 times. 

It was fun watching the cooks grill my meal, and I was able to keep an eye on it the entire time.  (No hidden or surprise ingredients when eating...)  I was also able to strike up a conversation with another diner who had taken a generous portion of mussels.  It was her second visit to the restaurant, and she was giving them another try, as her first visit was not as good as she had hoped.

Overall, I was happy with my meal.  I got full, and there were no objectionable flavors to the meal.  The only concern I had with the entire visit was the cleanliness of the location.  We were there around 6 p.m. on a Friday evening, and they were not yet busy.  However, the floor area around the grill and food bar was filthy.  There was mashed up food that had been stepped on, sauce and water puddles, and the staff did not seem to mind walking through it.  The catch tray around the grill was also full of burnt and spilled food.

From a food safety standpoint, one of my concerns also involved cross contamination of the dishes.  The cooks around the grill use the same spatulas the entire trip around the grill.  They scrape the spatulas against the catch pan, then move around the grill to the next dish.  If a diner were to have a seafood allergy, or potentiallly some other type of food allergy, they would have been in trouble, because the cooking process does not eliminate the food residue.

Conversely, at Genghis Grill, as an example, each bowl cooked on the same round grill gets its own set of cleaned, sanitized cooking sticks.  If you express a food allergy, the Grillmaster annnounces it to the rest of the cooks and they use a second set of sticks to segregate your bowl from the rest of the dishes.

I might go back.  I might be alone when I go back, but I might go back.  Overall, it wasn't bad.  Not terrible, not great, but not bad. 

HuHot Mongolian Grill on Urbanspoon

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