Photo by Sasha ContrerasMany restaurants plaster a fanciful boast across their menu—"World Famous Hamburger," "Best Pastrami in Town," you know the shtick—but Great Wall Mongolian BBQ in La Habra prints perhaps the shtickiest. According to its menu/place mat, their steaming, succulent bowls of Mongolian BBQ are the "largest in LA County." It's a laughable assertion, partly because the owners offer no proof, but primarily because, as of this printing, La Habra remains part of OrangeCounty.
But ignore this tasty lie. In a culinary tradition that varies little whether you're chopsticking through Mongolian BBQ in Ulan Bator or Utica, Great Wall differentiates itself by offering grub more fiery, more nuanced and—yes—a bit more bountiful than other charcuteries. It's also prettier: panoramas on the wall feature camel-straddling nomads staring across the Gobi Desert; a stainless-steel buffet where patrons scoop together their Mongolian BBQ bowl looks like a relic from a Woolworth's liquidation sale.
Great Wall only offers Mongolian BBQ, so come ready to cook—and if you're not ready, follow the instructions on the menu. Smash down as many frozen shards of lamb, chicken and beef into a deep, wide bowl as possible, remembering that the large slices shrink considerably upon the teeming grill. After this, cram in some roughage—bean sprouts, slippery noodles, cabbage, onions, crispy celery, watercress, even bell peppers that contaminate anything within a six-inch radius with a furtive burn. Then anoint the brimming mass with seasoning sauces, mixing and matching from 10 options until you've satisfied your inner lab technician (stay away from the ginger water, though, unless you're in the mood for a good sweat bath). Finally, hand off your glistening creation to one of the two gruff Chinese men who lord over a large cast-iron grill near the restaurant's entrance like guards in the Forbidden City. They pour the bowl's contents onto the grill and stir-fry the mess to a hissing, aromatic bliss. The results are always overpowering yet basic, a sensation that stampedes upon your palate with the primal wallop of meat.
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One feature the Great Wall folks can truthfully boast about is their daily lunch special, one of the most rewarding in the county—$4.50 for a bowl of Mongolian BBQ, along with a better-than-average egg roll, a thimble of fried rice that tastes vaguely Mexican and a small tureen of unctuous egg flower soup. There is also an all-you-can-eat dinner special for a couple of bucks more, but the $4.50 deal quiets your gut for a good day. Come to think of it . . . Great Wall does hawk the biggest bowl of Mongolian BBQ I've come across in Orange County. Maybe I'm the fool? Nah.
GREAT WALL MONGOLIAN BBQ, 1261 S. HARBOR BLVD., LA HABRA, (714) 680-3569.