Pluck a denizen of Ulan Bator from his yurt and seat him in the middle of a restaurant specializing in 'Mongolianâ?� barbecue 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.â?�
The point, dear reader, 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,â?� used their swords to slice thin strips of meat and vegetables, then used their shields to sear them over an open fire. How fabulously frontierish!
Then again, such inaccuracies are symptomatic of many restaurants not only in Orlando, 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 Cityâ?� ' 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 dÃ©cor is ablaze with fiery reds, oranges and disturbingly humorous murals of sinister beasts eating other beasts ' nothing whets the appetite more, I find.
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, scallops and that quintessential Mongolian delicacy, alligator ' lie partially frozen in metal trays. Then pile on your choice of noodles ' the Chinese are too thick, the Thai too thin, but the Japanese yakisoba noodles are just right. 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 teriyakiâ?� and 'spicy kung pao yowâ?� 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.
The results are mixed (in more ways than one). My first bowl comprised chicken, Chinese noodles, peppers, scallions, bamboo shoots, sugar snap peas and seven ladles of their hottest kung pao yow sauce. Immediately noticeable was the unpleasant cardboard texture of the shredded chicken. 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 beef, 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 papery beef sealed the fate of this dish, and the overabundance of greens even made it a tad mushy.
Weary from failure, I decided to give the alligator a shot. Its distinct reptilian aroma doesn't make it an overwhelmingly popular choice, but this was the least disappointing meat I sampled, likely because there were actual chunks of gator, not shreds.
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.
All-you-can-eat dinners go for a very reasonable $11.99 and come with an insipid soup and salad of your choice. Weekday lunch goes for $7.99 and weekend lunches for $9.99 ' decent bargains.
The 'sweet victory s'moresâ?� ($8.99), which you prepare yourself using a tabletop brazier, were delightfully sticky and satisfying, while Khan's cake ($4.99) is a thick slab of seven-layer chocolate cake fit for warriors with the sweetest of teeth. If only I could enjoy the eponymous cake with a warm glass of fermented mare's milk. After all, that's what Genghis would down after a hard day of plundering and pillaging.