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[whitespace] Mongo's
Theater in the Round: The cooking process is part of the entertainment at Mongo's.

Mongolian-loving hordes invade two new BBQ pits

By Andrew X. Pham

THE TERM MONGOL HORDE has taken on a new meaning around the South Bay. You can see them swarming around Mongolian barbecue huts across the valley. Mongol-style restaurants have invaded nearly every city in the county. The latest pair, Mongo's and President Restaurant, recently opened within weeks of each other to cater to the growing forces.

Apparently, Mongolian barbecue made a big impression with its do-it-yourself and have-it-your-way attitude. In this line of dining, it is difficult to do anything wrong. The procedure is fairly basic. The house presents a sumptuous spread that includes beef, chicken, lamb, pork, watercress, tofu, noodles, carrots, zucchini, herbs, bean sprouts, tomatoes, scallions, cabbage, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, cilantro, chile peppers, bell peppers and more. At the end of the line are half a dozen sauces and oils, ranging from the basic soy sauce to exotic house mixes.

A diner goes down the aisle with a bowl, fills it with the chosen items and splashes on a blend of sauces to personal taste. There is no such thing as an "inappropriate mix." He or she hands the bowl to the grillmaster, who empties it onto a large round metal griddle and cooks everything at once. The result is a steaming platter to be enjoyed with steamed rice.

When the meal isn't a buffet, there is a strategy to maximizing one's plunder. It is best to put frozen meat into the bowl first. Generally, the densest and most compact ingredient goes on the bottom. In other words, bean sprouts never get loaded first. Press down hard to pack the bowl. Also remember that meat shrinks significantly when cooked.

Mongo's isn't the cheapest waystation for Mongolian barbecue, but it is the most attractive and benign. Cut in swaths of moss green and pumpkin yellow, Mongo's cavernous hall, attractively carpeted, is lined with a grid of black chairs and tables, arranged with military precision. It can host an invading army, although full capacity might spark a riot because there is only one average-sized griddle.

Mongo's boasts a grand selection of sauces, both proprietary and common blends, some 14 in all, and a sprawling collection of veggies, noodles and fresh tofu. Meats are limited to beef, chicken, lamb and pork. The restaurant's real plusses are the decor and the friendly menu, which guides the novice diner through the process of mixing sauces. Minor setbacks are a timid grillmaster and overcooked rice.

Lunches are $6.95 and dinners are $8.95 for the first raid down the food boulevard. A second run-through costs an additional $3.50. Children 3 to 12 years old receive $2 off the adult price, and toddlers eat free. Microbrews, which go quite well with spicy food, are $3 a pint.

President Restaurant takes a different approach to Mongolian barbecue. This mom-and-pop eatery sits in a strip mall and gears itself toward the common man with the uncommonly large appetite. The dining room is definitely unique, something of a blend from three different decades. The restaurant recently changed ownership, and the new proprietors have trimmed prices and added more items to the buffet. They are striving hard to offer serious value for fans of all-you-can-eat emporiums. Lunch is $4.99 and dinner is $6.99.

Also thrown into the bargain is a modest Chinese steam-table buffet featuring such usual suspects as beef and broccoli, fried rice, sweet-'n'-sour spareribs, stir-fried vegetables and a few others cooked on the chef's whim. Most aren't particularly fetching unless one catches the early lunch or dinner hours. The best candidate under the heat lamp is the snow crab legs in ginger scallion sauce. Mussels on the half shell smothered in oyster sauce are too chewy. The hot and sour soup gets average marks. If all this food isn't enough, the kitchen offer the gamut of Chinese dishes a la carte.

Either way you slice it--downtown trendy or suburban strip-mall style--cheap, tasty and ample provender for under $10 can be had easily at either spot. Just get in line with the rest of the hungry hordes.


Mongo's
Cuisine: Mongolian barbecue
Ambiance: casually hip
Menu: lunch $6.95, dinner $8.95
Hours: lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; dinner Mon.-Sun. 5pm-closing
Address: 83 S. Second St., San Jose
Phone: 408/280-1738

President Restaurant
Cuisine: Mongolian barbecue
Ambiance: mom-and-pop casual
Menu: buffet, lunch $4.99, dinner $6.99
Hours: lunch daily 11am-4pm; dinner daily 4-9pm
Address: 1190 Hillsdale Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/978-7188


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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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