For the uninitiated, quantifying the current state of Mongolian food in America can come off as a bit of an oddity. After all, the source nation is one whose bloody history is chiseled out in some of the sparest real estate in the greater sphere of the Asian continent; the battle-hardened and brutal armies of Temujin didn’t exactly have a hell of a lot of time for take-out, and one might assume that a cuisine worthy of that culture would consist of blackened lamb shanks, goatmilk and the lamentations of your enemies’ women.
However, this has hardly been the case, over the course of the last ten years. Bolstered by the popularity of chains like Great Khan’s, the so-called Mongolian grill has become a fixture of food courts from Bellingham to Presque Isle. Less an example of a unique international dining experience and more a toolbox approach to the Panda Express college of “quick-fried shit with a chaser of greasy noodles and a scoop of rice,” the main hook for these chains tend to be a combination of buffet-style service and a slap-dash of pageantry. Once in line, customers take up a bowl which they then stuff with a variety of meats, vegetables and other accoutrements; the completed product is then turned over to a grill-tender, who beats the pile of food into submission with a pair of shaping sticks and a bottle of some viscous oil-water concoction. After the cooking’s completed, the meal is generally weighed, and some “pay-per-pound” price slapped on whatever the hell the customer hath wrought, which can present a kind of cheap, carnival-quality amusement unto itself*.
Further muddying the intrinsic potential of the Mongolian grill is the fact that the term itself has been spitballed into the same crummy stripmall vernacular as those ubiquitous “Teriyaki Bars” and “Hawaiian BBQs” that freckle up the main drag of any major urban landscape. With rare exception, the offerings at these places are simply reconstituted
Chinese food, with the same stainless steel bins of chicken fried rice stickying up the works at the Aloha Hut as you’d find at the Oishii café’; it’s the worst kind of culinary monoculturing, and a bonafide pain in the ass for anybody looking to score some legitimately delicious Asian-style eats on the fly.
Unless, of course, that person happens to be within reasonable driving or scuttling distance of Bothell, or—more specifically—Mill Creek… in which case, your gut-hurt pleas to the gods of affordable and delicious fire-blasted, buffet-style grub have been heard, and met with a kind benevolence.
The Hot Iron Mongolian Grill
15418 Main St # 101, Mill Creek, WA
The first thing that anybody’s likely to notice about the Hot Iron is the fact that it’s got a certain kind of hotel-lounge charm to its aesthetic; absent are the breakfast cereal oranges and yellows, the obnoxious pseudo-sino bullshit trappings of fake silk-screen prints and panda bears, the molded plastic booths. Simply replace the giant flat-topped grill and serving counters with an actual bar, and you could be cooling your heels in the off-lobby lounge at the BW on Sixth Street. It’s a friendly and welcoming middle ground between lunch-crowd classy and walk-in casual, and suits the understated charms of the place to a tightly-crossed “T.”
Once situated, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scope of the Iron’s buffet-line offerings: three different kinds of base noodles mark the beginning of the “build-a-bowl” queue, with bins of crisp vegetables, delicious-looking meats and other goodies piled in a high and wild fashion, encouraging customers to get their pick-and-choose on. It’s in this regard that Hot Iron absolutely slaughters its competition, both in the quality of its ingredients as well as the variety. At no other Mongolian grill—be it at Alderwood, Everett, downtown Seattle or all parts in-between—are you going to find massive jumbo shrimp, calamari rings large enough to wear as a friendship bracelet, or actual, dice-cut fish filets. The owners of the Iron clearly understand the difference between stop-and-go fare and setting the standard a good two or three notches above that of their contemporaries.
The glory of the Mongolian grill as a culinary genre is that it’s a total free-for-all when it comes to drafting up your lunch; a serving bowl packed with ramen-style wheat noodles and green onions gets as much play on the grill as the picky patron who decides that they want strips of pork and a handful of carrots. There’s no prejudice or rules of engagement for this particular foray into goddamned deliciousness. You do what you want, and—at the Hot Iron—you pay exactly what the person in front of you does, based on your having chosen one of two slice-of-pie options:
*A small bowl can be refilled, but can’t be used to top off a to-go container, once you’ve had your fill.
*A large bowl costs a few bucks more, but you can tuck what you eat into a doggie bag, and continue the war against your tastebud’s threshold for deliciousness at a later time.
Outside of that, the dirtier details of your dining experience are exactly what you see fit to make them. The Hot Iron also has a complement of beers and wines for a truly belt-busting lunch or dinner foray, and is absolutely peerless in terms of its friendly service and equally chipper grill-jockeys. After happening into the place for their mid-afternoon lull, Jynx and I walked out with our lungs stuffed and enough food left over to make the question of dinner a non-starter… all for a price under twenty-five bucks.
So. If you’re local, and you want to kick your palette’s ass in the best way possible… partake. Whether a veteran of the Mongolian grill as an edible genre or looking for something of the hot and new variety, you will not find a better destination.