The myths surrounding Mongolian BBQ are strong. I’ve read enough tabletop literature to know Mongolia is found in northwest China, bound by the Great Wall of China to the south, Russia’s Lake Baikal to the north, the Kerulen River to the east, and the Altai Mountains to the west. Placemat wisdom has also revealed, “Mongol’s barbecue was one of the major cooking methods used by Genghis Khan’s brave cavalry men while they were on their expeditions around the world. It was later adopted by the remainder of their nomadic race due to its simplicity and effectiveness.” Genghis Khan didn’t have a food blog in the 13th Century, so the reality remains fuzzy, but it is clear Taipei was ground zero for “Mongolian BBQ” restaurants in the middle of the 20th Century. Regardless of authenticity, I have great memories of the genre. Mongolian BBQ was how I chose to celebrate multiple birthdays in New Jersey, and it’s still a fun experience. Each trip to the giant wok where the contents of your bowl cook is an adventure, with endless combinations of meat, vegetables and sauce. I researched eight Mongolian BBQ options in L.A. Which spots are worth visiting?
[Pro tip: remember to tip your wok master in addition to your server, at least a buck a bowl.]
Numbered establishments on the map correspond to information below for easy reference. Establishments also appear in alphabetical order instead of in order of preference.
1. Big Wok Mongolian BBQ ($13.45 AYCE)
This large Manhattan Beach dining hall has light wood tables, photos of Mongolia on the wall, including yurts and horses aplenty, plus twin woks with clanging spatulas that rest behind low tile walls. Big Wok provides a choice of five proteins, including the typical trilogy of chicken, turkey, and pork, along with lamb, and relatively premium ribeye. Yes, you can fill more than one bowl, but Big Wok bans leftovers.
My Bowl: Pork, lamb, ribeye, carrots, cabbage, spinach, scallions, water chestnuts, baby corn, snow white noodles and spicy sauce featuring 2 spoonfuls of spicy BBQ sauce, 1 ginger water, 1 garlic water and 2 Dragon Hot Sauce, an oil with chile flakes
2. Fresh Mongolian BBQ ($6.43)
This basic restaurant is located on the street side of a Valley Glen strip mall. Expect a patio with burgundy awning, brick walls, buffet of ingredients with bowls and red trays, brick walls and a flat, showcase wok. Fresh has been open for just over three years, and charges a shockingly low price to fill a bowl, with the option to add shrimp for $1.99 and egg for 99 cents. They’ve posted three sauce recipes on the wall: Classic Mongolian, Sour Plum and Our Favorite.
My Bowl: Chicken, pork, lamb, carrots, water chestnuts, broccoli, and thick noodles with Our Favorite sauce: 2 scoops fire red Medium Hot, 3 scoops Plum, 2 scoops Lemon, 1 tsp garlic, 1/3 tsp Spicy Hot paste
3. Gobi Mongolian BBQ ($13.95 dinner, $10.95 lunch)
If it’s possible for a Mongolian BBQ place to be trendy, this is. In 2009, Christina Rivera opened Gobi with fellow Silver Lakers Michael Buch (Pazzo Gelato), Ruth and Carlos Ochoa. This is the only Mongolian BBQ house to serve craft beer (think Alesmith IPA and Strand 24th Street Pale Ale), plus small bites like tuna tartar and sesame crusted onion rings. Above the food line, they’ve posted six clear instructions on “How It Works,” tracking from “grab a bowl & pick your meats” to “return to seat and enjoy.” Another key differentiator is Gobi’s use of organic meats and vegetables. Choose from pork, chicken breast, lamb, and Angus beef, plus farmers market finds like Sweredoski Farms patty pan squash and Rush Canyon Ranch oyster mushrooms. Regardless of what you choose, the wok master uses two big chopsticks to toss the food around the wok, adding water, and if you like, extra BBQ Sauce. Yes, the plate comes with flat, fresh baked sesame rolls.
My Bowl: Lamb, pork, beef, red chard, spinach, squash, noodles and sauce of 1 spoon garlic oil, 2 smoked oyster sauce, 1 medium spicy, 2 lemon oil, 2 BBQ sauce
4. Golden Palace Mongolian Barbeque ($12.95 dinner, $7.95 lunch)
Golden Palace, fka Golden Lion, dates to 1978 and probably has the kookiest atmosphere of any Mongolian BBQ house, complete with round stained-glass chandeliers that depict playing card characters, plus glass partitions etched with Mongolian people, camels and yurts. Dinner is a gut-busting affair at Golden Palace, not only since your bowl’s bottomless, but because meals come with fried wontons, soup (beef with carrot, cabbage and onion), appetizers (vegetarian egg rolls and a single pork wonton), steamed white rice, and flat sesame-studded pocket bread. This gilded Mongolian spot also provides access to a “fruit bar,” which has twice as many jellies as fruits (pineapple and orange slices), but is a value-add, nonetheless.
My Bowl: Pork, beef, lamb, broccoli, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, and Kung Pao Flavor (Spicy) sauce featuring 2 spoons Mongol’s BBQ Sauce, 2 Spoons Teriyaki Sauce, 1 Spoon Sweet & Sour Sauce, 1 Spoon Chile Paste. Bonus: 1 Spoon Chile Oil