Meal of the Marauders

Eating the present past at Genghis Khan

Photo by Jessica CalkinsA bronze relief hanging from a wall in Genghis Khan restaurant in Fullerton depicts a smiling family outside a ger, the massive portable tent medieval Mongolians called home. The 13th-century-era clan sit around a campfire eagerly awaiting their allotment of cooked meat. The same scene occurs before the relief daily, except eaters at Genghis Khan stand in line as the restaurant's chef prepares the exact meal distributed in the massive artwork. The centuries pass, but Mongolian barbecue remains.

Few dishes are as primordial, as unaffected by the evolution of human society as this amalgamation of flesh and greens. Mongolian barbecue supposedly originated during Genghis Khan's campaigns of carnage against China. Since soldiers were always on the rampage far from base, the story goes, they'd heat their shields in the battlefield and cook upon them whatever flesh they could slaughter. Things have changed little nearly a millennium later: it's still stir-fried shavings of meat and vegetables simmered with various sauces to a taste as startling as a sword through the tongue. Mongolian barbecue is the same whether served in Ulaanbaatar or Irvine, during the reign of Kublai Khan or Dubya.

Genghis Khan updates Mongolian barbecue only nominally. Instead of just-killed animal, customers shovel into a large bowl frozen turkey, beef, chicken and pork. Rather than garnish the mound of meat with the tough grasses of the Mongolian steppes, Genghis Khan offers such vegetables as celery, lemongrass stalks and carrot slices. Multiple scoops of mild, medium or spicy sauces anoint the meat and roughage bits in place of the traditional boiling blood.

The still-frozen results are then handed to a gruff Latino—this is Southern California, remember, not the outskirts of the Gobi. He's standing inside a glass-paneled booth housing a colossal cast-iron grill that's the alternative to the shield of yore. The stir-fry soldier spills the bowl's contents onto the heated grill, occasionally spreading the meal across the iron with a thin wooden mallet that mimics the scimitar of Mongol marauders past. Once finished, the Latino scoops the completed product into another bowl and hands it back to the famished.

The stir-frying transforms the Mongolian barbecue into a time machine—the brusque force of the Mongol Empire rampages anew across taste buds, meat and vegetables. An accompanying spice rack next to the grill allows for the further accentuation of Mongolian barbecue's ruthless savor—tough sesame seeds, debilitating Chinese mustard, and a type of sweet minced salsa usually found only in Chinese-Peruvian cuisine.

There are other choices at Genghis Khan besides the Mongolian barbecue—greasy dumplings strong with the taste of cloves; prawns pounded and fried into an unnatural shape and taste; some crispy critter approximating a fish fortune cookie. But stick to the Mongolian barbecue; the restaurant offers it as an all-you-can-eat option for a reason. Besides, the Genghis Khan folks provide some interesting side dishes not found at most Mongolian barbecue shops. Each serving begins with a warm bowl of egg flower soup, oily and surprisingly hearty with pale tofu cubes bobbing around a single long noodle. Also provided are balls of steamed rice, dried egg noodles ideal for nibbling on as a respite from the meat, and two tiny egg rolls. Best of the accompaniments are two big buns of the dry, intensely floury bread shao-bing speckled with sesame seeds. Rip the shao-bing in half, stuff in some meat and have the sandwich of Temujin's dreams.

Genghis Khan Mongolian BBQ, 333 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 870-6930, open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Closed Sun. Dinner for two $14, excluding drinks. Beer only. Cash only.
 
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