Mongolian BBQ

A build-your-own bowl trend brings spice to the suburbs

All parents want their kids to be special. My son is a genius! My daughter is a prodigy! Mine eats goat! How else to explain the boomlet of Mongolian barbecues cropping up in the Twin Cities’ most family-friendly suburbs? Haven’t noticed them? There’s bd’s Mongolian Grill, newly open in Burnsville across from Macy’s, and Mongo’s Grill in Maple Grove. I wondered, would this trend prove too exotic for my family, in particular my sons, ages 4 and 2?

Mongolian barbecue is neither Mongolian nor is it really barbecue. It’s stir-fry. You approach a buffet and fill your bowl with ingredients: raw or partially cooked vegetables, noodles, meat, and various sauces. You carry these bowls to an enthusiastic chef, who cooks your ingredients on an open grill with the use of two cooking swords. Both restaurants have about 10 different meats, 20 different vegetables, and more than a dozen sauces. Both were packed with families clearly relieved to be eating something other than chicken nuggets and fish sticks.

Which is better? If you like extremely attentive service, bd’s. Company headquarters recently relocated to Burnsville, and every manager seemed to be on duty during my Saturday lunch. Like overeager salespeople at the Gap, staff hovered, constantly clearing plates and replacing dropped silverware, but also bringing the dessert tray while we were still eating. The vibe is fun, even if the offend-no-one look screams “FRANCHISE!”

As franchises go, it’s pretty darn good. Sauces range from sweet and mild to fiery. A manager (of course) stationed along the buffet suggested a combo of Kung Pao and chili-garlic sauces for my New York strip. Good call: spicy, tempered by a dose of smoke. Diners for whom cooking with swords is not enough will be pleased to note that bd’s has a full bar.

Across town, with no liquor license and half the staff, Mongo’s is much more subdued. The meats are frozen chunks, instead of the shavings at bd’s, which was a little off-putting and resulted in one member of my group ending up with tough meat. But the vegetable choices are more extensive, with three colors of peppers a highlight.

Mongo’s is slightly cheaper, although both restaurants are quite reasonable, with prices ranging from $4.49, for the kids lunch at Mongo’s, to $14.99, for the all-you-can-eat adult dinner at bd’s. Most important, my 4-year-old proved he could thrive in a world without macaroni and cheese. He ate chicken, steak, baby corn, pea pods, and broccoli. It wasn’t goat, but at least Mongolian sounds exotic.

Mongo’s Grill 11628 Fountains Dr., Maple Grove, 763-493-2695,
bd’s Mongolian Grill 1025 Cty. Rd. 42 W., Burnsville, 952-435-0032,

Jason DeRusha answers “Good Questions” weeknights at 10 on WCCO-TV.