When the Mongolian hordes--you know, those guys led by Genghis and Kublai and Chaka and all those other Khans--took a break from a hard day's fight, they liked to relax over a steaming helmetful of on-the-roadkill stew.
This haphazard cuisine would not seem the stuff that restaurant dynasties are made of, but here comes BD's Mongolian Barbeque, out to conquer Denver diners with its trademarked "Create Your Own Stir-Fry" concept (vanquished peoples not included).
Here's where historians agree: During their thirteenth-century travels, the Mongolians used their helmets (some say their shields) to cook meat and vegetables. While that time-honored tradition is echoed in countless Korean eateries as well as authentic Mongolian-barbecue joints, BD's offers a thoroughly modern twist: Here food is cooked by entertaining grill experts wearing not armor, but T-shirts with such slogans as "Natural Born Grillers" as they slave over a flat, hot--650 degrees--nine-foot-in-diameter circular grill.
The Mongolian warriors were overseen by the Khans until halfway through the fourteenth century, when the Ming Dynasty took over. At BD's Mongolian Barbeque, patrons are overseen by a nine-foot-high inflatable "Mongo Man" who teeters around the dining room. I've seen kids cry in sheer terror at the sight of this bobbing caricature, who looks more like a Pez-dispenser version of a Los Lobos member than he does a Mongolian warrior.
While the warriors of yore ate only what they could scrounge--the hapless bunny here, the dirt-covered root veggie there--and only as much of that as was available, diners at BD's have a choice of twenty vegetables, five meats and four sea creatures (all pre-cut by purveyors to keep down overhead), four oils, nineteen sauces and fifteen herbs and spices. And they can eat as much of that as they want, in any combination, for a set price of $11.95 at dinner and $9.95 at lunch (kids under twelve eat for $4.95 all the time, and tots under two eat free--but only if you speak up).
This is the concept that Billy Downs introduced when he opened the first BD's Mongolian Barbeque in 1992 in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb that was becoming a destination spot for Detroit-area diners. And even with plenty of competition from decent restaurants, the original BD's is still going gangbusters, often boasting hour-long waits. But conquering Denver won't come as easy. The problem isn't just the sudden surfeit of other allegedly Asian restaurants a few blocks from the LoDo space where BD's got to grilling last month.
No, BD's is its own worst enemy.
For starters, there's something unsettling about the sight of so much raw meat sitting around--and sitting around where so many people will handle it. Most of the action at BD's is do-it-yourself, and although the management has signs all over the ingredient bar warning customers to put tongs back in the correct bins, I saw several people ignore these instructions. At one point, I watched as a pair of chicken tongs went into the beef and the tofu tongs landed somewhere in the ice; the next person up used the scallop tongs to get some tofu. You just can't expect people who come into an eatery with their buddies and get busy chatting to avoid such slips of the tong. (As a onetime Wendy's employee who oversaw the salad bar, I can attest to the fact that people do weird things when they're confronted with more than one container of food.)
Eventually the food is cooked at 650 degrees, which is enough to kill a bacteria the size of Mongo Man. But vegetarians, for example, might be a little perturbed to know that meat tongs touched their less violent, carefully collected ingredients. And they're going to be even more dismayed when their raw dinner winds up spread across a meat-tainted grill.
Although the grillers scrape off each section before tossing down the next meal, there's still enough flavor left over from the first mix to affect the next. During my first visit, a companion filled her bowl with painstakingly selected items--tofu, calamari, water chesnuts, broccoli, carrots and mushrooms--and chose a mild lemon sauce (the spicy ones are clearly marked), along with some sesame oil and soy sauce for a very basic stir-fry flavor. But the dish still came out spicy. I bear some responsibility for that: The griller cooked her dish right after mine, in exactly the same spot. And atop my medley of seafoods (calamari, "popcorn" shrimp so small they qualified more as corn than shrimp, cod and fishy-smelling scallops), I'd ladled on chile-garlic sauce and then sprinkled some cayenne for good measure. That 650-degree heat may kill a lot of things, but cayenne is not one of them.
At least those dishes had flavor, though. Others came out duller, largely because most of BD's sauces are lackluster, toned down from any Asian origins for mainstream American tastes. They're one-note liquids: The lemon sauce tastes of just lemon, the black bean sauce of fermented black beans. To make things more interesting, BD's urges you to mix and match oils (with a helpful suggestion of just how much oil you need for a stir-fry) and herbs--and for diners worried about their ability to concoct something edible (not a small fear, given the millions of possible combinations and millions of opportunities for disaster), the restaurant posts its own recipes. One, the "Zen Master's Special," seems to sum up the inconsistencies in the BD's concept. The dish begins with turkey, an animal product not commonly found on the average Buddhist's diet, let alone a master's, then adds sprouts, onions, green bell peppers, cayenne, garlic and sweet-and-sour sauce. Meditate on that mix a moment. Uh-om.
On a return visit, my dining pal went crazy with the ingredients and created a stir-fry from hell: too much rosemary, too much mustard sauce, not enough oil. The server took the full bowl away and cheerfully told her to try again. She went with one of the suggested combinations from the kids' menu, but it wasn't any better. I decided it was safer to simply go for a big bowl of lamb or pork, with no sauces or seasonings. The super-hot grill does do a nice job of searing in those juices.
Not everything at BD's gets a grilling. There's a salad bar, which includes all the usual suspects--all fresh, like the grilling ingredients, and also not particularly exciting. That bar features two soups as well. I tried the bland chicken noodle and a vegetable mix that tasted like it came straight from a #10 can.
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The only parts of the meal that are brought by a server--if you can find one--are drinks, rice (clumpy and doughy) and tortillas (dry, chewy and incongruous). Although the staff is friendly enough--especially the dancing/singing/broccoli-juggling guys at the grill--it quickly becomes obvious that you'll have to do most of the work. And that includes reminding staffers over and over that you're missing a drink, missing a napkin, missing a check.
Then again, those Mongolian hordes didn't have many people to fetch and tote for them, either. So for them, it made sense to set their helmets over a roaring fire and stir up some grub. Their swords must have made quick work of food prep--and their nomadic lifestyle meant a Pizza Hut delivery was hard to come by. That five-mile radius has always been a bummer.
But with the advent of freezers and microwaves and all of those other time-saving conveniences Genghis never dreamed of, there's no need to subject your stomach to BD's trial by fire. Conquering hunger has got to be easier than this.
BD's Mongolian Barbeque, 1620 Wazee Street, 303-245-8387. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday.