The first time I went to the Flat Top Grill I had a really good time and I loved my stir fry. The second time, I had a pretty good time and my stir fry tasted like it did the first time.
The third time, I did not have a good time and despite my attempt to create a stir fry quite unlike what I'd concocted the first two times, it tasted like it did the first time.
Admittedly, I love a cafeteria line. The Flattop's gimmick, the build-your-own stir-fry bar, is a pretty good one. And the ingredients are fine, with everything most people would want in a stir fry, fresh and chopped and waiting for you to toss them into your bowl.
At the bar, choose from thin or thick noodles or white or brown rice as a base. (Or later, ask the chefs to make the ingredients into a salad.) Start adding veggies and even fruit. In addition to the mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, onions, peapods, water chestnuts, baby corn, green pepper, etc., that you'd expect, there are welcome surprises like edamame, pineapple, mandarin orange, and wheat gluten, which happens to be a tasty addition to a stir fry. Don't let its wrinkled tan appearance frighten you. Something about it soaks up sauces in a particularly memorable way.
It helps to think of some kind of culinary theme for your mix, so you're not just tossing in a little of everything, because little bits of this and that tend to disappear in the overall product. (The restaurant does provide a card with suggestions for combos.) It also helps to know that everything cooks down, so it's okay to pile the bowl high.
Next, the sauce to tie everything together. Flat Top supplies tasting cups so you can try out sauces before committing. I abandoned the taste-test after a couple of tries, though, because I was holding up the line. I took a pseudo-Thai approach, combining the peanut sauce, some red hot sauce, and lemon grass water.
Lastly, place your "protein" in a separate bowl, choosing from chicken, pork, beef and/or a seafood option, which was squid on my first two visits and catfish on the third. It's at this point you request special treatment, like turning your bowl into mu-shu, soup, or salad; add-ons like shrimp or tofu; and if you have food allergies or are a vegetarian, this is where you ask them to use a separate grill. You can also request a slice of "roti," a grilled flatbread that doesn't taste much like real Indian roti, but is okay for grilled flatbread.
On my first two visits, picking the ingredients and watching the chefs do the cooking was fun. But when Flat Top is busy, which it was on my third visit, the line bogs down and there can be too much confusion, elbowing and pawing at the bar.
Flat Top is not necessarily a great place to take kids, especially if they are reluctant to try new foods. It could be a good idea to explain the concept with the younger set at home first, otherwise you might end up paying for a bowl of plain noodles with a few peapods on top.
Flat Top is probably most enjoyable when you don't go too often. And build your bowl with some consideration. (You might do well to study their tips page before you go.) No, it's not real Chinese/Indian/Thai food, but it's better than most home stir fries (unless you're an excellent chef) and the process of creation offers a convenient topic for conversation, which is maybe why so many couples dining there appear to be on dates.
At $7, the lunch is a bargain -- especially so considering it's the exact same thing you pay $12 for at dinner. For $1 more, you can make a return trip to the bar and re-fuel.
A few Chinese-style appetizers and a few American-style desserts are also on the menu. Our interest was piqued by the announcement on the Flat Top website that some of the chain's Chicago-area restaurants offer a weekend brunch with omelets, scrambles, pancakes and more from the grill. Sounds like fun.