Khan’s Mongolian Barbecue is in fact neither barbecue nor Mongolian.
It is, however, a pure embodiment of American eating values.
First, and by far most important, it offers all-you-can-eat portions. Plunk down your $16 at dinner or $10 at lunch, and stay all day if you like. It’s as American as super-sizing your meal. We want this simply because we can, and at the small chain of Khan’s, you can have it all.
Second, Khan’s offers things “your way.” This is possibly the first iteration of the now standard method of fast-casual dining, where you can watch every last ingredient go into your bowl. Here, it’s a stir-fry. And if you know anything about the mechanics of stir-fry, you know that the high water content of veggies will cook down to a limp shadow of what they once were, so don’t be afraid to pile, and pile, and pile some more. Take two bowls at a time.
Third, you’ll notice that what’s being advertised as Mongolian is really nothing more than good old-fashioned Cantonese classic flavors, which I’ve said more than once are as American as apple pie.
Twenty years ago, Khan’s was novel. People spoke in astonished tones about the place where you could take all you want, hand it to a guy who would cook it for you, and then do it all over again as many times as you liked. There was a full bar and a gong. It was always located out in some random suburb. It was exotic.
These days, while the Roseville Khan’s feels a little shopworn, the time capsule feel of a vintage Asian restaurant is irresistible. Many shades of glowy red, ceramic horses and temples, and the comforting incandescence of neon signs for Tsingtao and Sapporo beer offer faux glamour to balance out the drop ceilings and industrial restaurant tile. I absolutely love it.
Begin your journey around the buffet with a moat filled with meat. The careful temperature gauge keeps the proteins exactly on the precipice between raw and frozen, so there is no chance of getting squicked out by, say, a heap of raw oozy chicken. If you can deal with frozen shrimp from a bag, you can deal with this.
Here, the shrimp in question are salad shrimp, little pink commas. You'll also find ruby red shreds of beef, copious chicken breast, faux crab, white rings of squid, and even die-cut cubes of tofu.
Beyond the meat, you'll discover green florets of broccoli, curls of raw onion, yellow pineapple nubbins, great marvelous hills of bean sprouts and spinach, carrot and cabbage ribbons, pre-cooked potatoes, and noodles.
A well of sauces and cooking wines and oils comes next, and a how-to guide for the uninitiated. Mix and match ladles of garlic, sesame-scallion, teriyaki, and chili sauces for desired results of spice levels. Or, throw caution to the wind and go in headlong. Your madness and its method is yours alone.
At long last, bring this pile of craziness over to the patient teppanyaki chefs who stand at various intervals around a giant griddle, waiting to stir-fry your dish with long chopsticks. They’ll ask one question and one question only: Do you want peanuts? Yes, you want peanuts. (And since said peanuts get scattered across the cooking surface with wild abandon, Khan’s is definitely not a place for those with peanut allergies.)
Finally, accept your cooked bowl back from the chef, take time to tip him, and then – and only then – take a ceremonial whack at the gong. Signage imploring that you do so softly has clearly gone mostly unbidden, if the enormous crater in the center is any indication.
You haven’t so much as touched chop stick to lip yet, and you’ve already had more fun than at any ordinary restaurant in months, haven’t you?
Service at Khan’s is predictably swift and efficient, and like any self-respecting all-you-can-eat establishment, they’ll try to ply you with complimentary starch, including wonton chips and bread. As Anthony Bourdain has been wisely instructing us for years when faced with a meat-orgy, do not take the bait. Here, the buns are barely cooked fists of white dough filled with sugar water. I am not kidding. In other words, absolutely irresistible, especially for kids who might be tempted to fill up before getting to the buffet offerings. Khan is no dummy.
If you can consume your platter and go back for another round, then I salute you. Sixteen bucks is a moderate amount for all-you-can eat, but there is only so much you can eat. Certainly there will be outliers, and for those stalwart few, all balances out in the great calculator of the American buffet experience.
As the dining landscape shifts slowly, slowly to a more sane way of wellness-based eating, where plants finally make their way to the center of the plate, and portion sizes get more reasonable, keep the "Mongolian" "barbecue" in your back pocket as a wild card. When only jumping on a cafeteria raft to travel down a river of meats will do, choose Khan’s, where everything is comfortingly egregious, right down to the name.