Have It Your Way—Really 

Mongolian barbecue lunch spot gives diners complete control of their meal, at a remarkably affordable price

Mongolian barbecue lunch spot gives diners complete control of their meal, at a remarkably affordable price

Khan's Mongolian BBQ

237 Fourth Ave. N. 726-2340

10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri.

Price range: $

It's amazing how much you can fit in one bowl, isn't it?" was the rhetorical question posed to me by the petite woman across the buffet of raw meats, fresh vegetables, sauces, spices and oils at Khan's Mongolian BBQ. I was thinking the same exact thing looking at her bowl, which was filled quite out of proportion to her size, and she wasn't done yet. Still, she had nothing on the three white-collared businessmen in front of me, all of whom toted bowls brimming over with bean sprouts, green peppers, mushrooms, onions and snow peas sitting atop a pile of beef.

Having little knowledge of Mongolia—other than that is in Central Asia and Genghis Khan came from there—I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this style of cuisine. Ancient lore indicates that it originates from Mongol warriors who cooked dinner on their shields out on the battlefield; the modern concept replaces shields with a large round grill heated to 500 degrees, and warriors with grill cooks.

The concept is one of the fastest-growing in the burgeoning "fast-casual" segment of the dining industry. There are many chains specializing in Mongolian barbecue, including Genghis Grill, which just opened in Cool Springs. Sam Lee, a native of South Korea, researched several of those chains, but opted to put his MBA from Vanderbilt's Owen School of Business to good use and opened his own store. "They are very expensive," he said, referring to franchises, though possibly also to the degree from Owen. "With my own store, I also have control over everything."

Coincidentally, that is one of the appeals of Mongolian barbecue for the customer: control. Though the two restaurants differ slightly in decor and amenities, with Genghis Grill offering table service for beverages (including adult ones), the concept is basically the same.

Here is the way it works at Khan's, a small, narrow space on Fourth Avenue North, just outside the entrance to the Arcade: Following the instructions printed at the end of the refrigerated salad bar, customers take a bowl, then choose one of four meats (though I guess it is not against policy to take more than one): beef, pork, chicken or turkey. Bins of freshly sliced or chopped veggies are next, including sprouts, bamboo shoots, snow peas, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, celery, red and green cabbage, water chestnuts, chives and tomato, along with tofu. Pile them on, then proceed to the spice/sauce/oil section. Printed suggestions are very helpful here; with beef, certain spices and sauces are recommended, while the white meats work better with other combinations.

Carry your bowl over to the counter and hand it to the clerk, who'll take your beverage order and ask if you prefer noodles or white or brown rice, eat-in or takeout. After you pay your money and receive a numbered chip, your bowl is dumped on the grill, cooked, thrown on the requested starch, and handed back to you. The entire process takes less than 10 minutes—at least it did on the day we were there.

Meals are priced not by weight or content, but by the bowl, an amazing bargain at just $5.95 (a dollar less between 2 and 3 p.m.). I would be concerned about people taking advantage of the pricing policy, but maybe, despite his Owen degree, Mr. Lee isn't yet in tune with Americans' well-documented habits of overeating.

As one of the minority who asks for a small when a Super Size is offered at a cheaper price, I love the idea of controlling my own portion size, as well as the amount of sauce and oil. The cooks add nothing to your bowl, so you decide if you want one or two ladles of sesame oil. The concept is ideal for carb-counters, who can refuse the starch altogether, and for vegetarians, who can bypass the meat and load up on tofu. As my daughter noted, patting herself on the back for what she called a "yum" beef stir-fry, "It would be hard for you to give this place a bad review since you are making it yourself."

Though the small store—with pretty light-blue walls, comfortable upholstered booths and swaths of sheer fabric hung from the ceiling—was consistently busy during our visit, the salad bar was kept filled and cleaned, tables were wiped down between diners, and the harried counter staff was pleasant and helpful. If you don't have a good experience at Khan's, you only have yourself to blame. n

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