In my younger days, I'd go out with a big group of my friends to a Chinese buffet and we'd eat until we could barely walk. "The Sunday Plow," we called it. The food was mediocre, mostly fried and slathered in thick sauce. Would that we were in high school today, when ravenous youths from all parts of Madison can enjoy the bounty of the latest, ahem, foreign food in town: Mongolian grill.
The idea is simple and universal to all Mongolian grill joints (with a few small variations). Fill a bowl (or bowls) with your choice of protein, noodles, veggies, spices and even fruit. Take it to the grill line, where an employee with some sort of fierce metal implement will remove your food forthwith to the grill. There is trust involved in giving up your food when it's crowded, but I've never seen anyone get the wrong dish. They cook, you wait. Depending on whether you signed up for unlimited bowls, this may go on for a while.
Flat Top Grill at Hilldale had the Madison Mongolian market cornered for a couple of years, until HuHot Mongolian Grill opened in December 2008 in the growing Junction Ridge neighborhood on the far west side. Then in February of this year, BD's Mongolian Barbecue opened near East Towne. While HuHot proliferates in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, BD's covers the area between the Appalachians and Wisconsin.
Madison's HuHot offers a wider variety of "proteins" than its other locations in Wisconsin, including the usual chicken/beef/ pork as well as calamari, imitation crab and shark. Vegetarians can roll with both tofu and tempeh. Baby octopus has been sighted on rare occasions; assistant manager Lexy Sternhagen told me it doesn't move very well, but it was out when I visited, and I witnessed a good third of diners avail themselves of the little guys. I'd suggest that this isn't the best cooking venue for baby octopus. They get a little tough, but it's awesome that they're offered.
The ample assortments of vegetables are fresh, not frozen, and rarely suffer from the deleterious effects of buffet-line overexposure. At HuHot, you pour sauces over the whole bowl. Use a little more than you think you should, as dryness can sometimes be a failing of HuHot cookery. In addition to the prefab sauces like Asian BBQ and coconut curry, simpler additions like lime juice, garlic broth and chili sauce are also available. This allows you to be flexible and creative, and to avoid sodium and sugar in the pre-made dressings.
While HuHot's protein selection is a step in the right direction, BD's takes it to another level. Perch, tilapia, scallops, ribeye, New York strip and lamb augment the standard choices. My combination of ribeye with mushrooms, bok choi and rice noodles was good enough that I might come back just for one bowl of that. Another run through the line resulted in a decent, but goopy, twist on pasta primavera, with tilapia and scallops paired with red peppers, snow peas and noodles.
The vegetables are roughly equivalent to HuHot's, but some of the veggies seem to have been blanched to speed cooking on the grill surface; I prefer them to start out raw. And another drawback: BD's sauces are all prefab concoctions. However, BD's offers eggs on the food line, allowing for a nice pad thai or fried rice.
I will add that BD's grillers singing and banging a gong when they get a tip at the grill line is likely to inspire me to tip at the table instead.
In short: HuHot's fresh vegetables and simpler dressings allow for the aspiring foodie to play chef with individual flavors, but it can get messy between line and grill. BD's keeps its sauces separate until the very end of the cooking process, which leads to stronger flavors upfront, but less overall complexity in each bite.
Unlimited dinner bowls run $15 at BD's, but $13.50 at HuHot. The latter also offers a "dinner for two" option that includes unlimited grill trips, soup/salad, appetizer, cocktail and dessert for $40. A la carte costs for that meal would be over $50 at HuHot, and closer to $55 at BD's. Add in the TGI Friday's-esque atmosphere of BD's, and my money's most likely to go to HuHot. (Note: Those with food allergies might be better served at BD's until the HuHot grill crew gets a little less sloppy. This is not to say they won't take precautions, but their precision still needs a little honing.)
Sure, you could go to BD's or HuHot and just eat one bowl from the grill menu. But the real fun's in playing with combinations. An unlimited bowl feels gluttonous, and it is. But each creation doesn't have to be huge.
If there's anything to be taken from our "Mongolian" hosts, it's that excess is perfectly acceptable.