October 23, 2003

'Mongo' Craze Consumes North Campus Diners

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Six minutes, 10 orders, two chefs and 500 degrees of heat. Welcome to the Mongolian Grill in the Robert Purcell Community Center’s Marketplace Eatery.

I stand outside the doors of the dining hall in heavy anticipation of Mongolian cuisine. Getting to the dining hall at 5:25 p.m., I figured I would be early enough to beat the Mongo line. I thought wrong. When I arrived, about seven other Mongo groupies were already waiting, just as I was.

By the time I got into the Mongo line, I was already facing a 10-minute wait before I could fill my bowl with my Mongo ingredients. Three minutes later, about 12 people had formed a line behind me. In any given night between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., the Mongo’s operating hours, batches of 10 orders go on the grill every six minutes. Three hundred orders are filled per night, each personally cooked for the customer by a Mongo chef.

The Mongolian grill itself is a large stove consisting of a metal disc about five feet in diameter and about three inches thick on the sides. This is heated up to 500 degrees by gas burners from the bottom. The heat is constant and can’t be adjusted in a local area of the grill.

This six-minute process begins with purging of the residue from the previous batch of Mongo orders with a metal scraper. After the grill surface is clean, oil is applied and spread all around. At this point, the customer gathers the ingredients he or she wants and puts them in a bowl. A refrigerated buffet arrangement with all of the ingredients that can be put into the customer’s creation is set up around the outside of the grill area. This setup is duplicated on the other side of the grill so two lines may form.

The range of items that can be put into a Mongo creation are vast. They include bamboo shoots, celery, carrots, baby corn, sweet peppers, water chestnuts, tofu chunks, garlic and ginger.

With all of this selection, each customer is allowed to fill one bowl. Roy Desbaigaae, a Mongolian grill chef, says that he has seen customers fill up one bowl with ingredients, and to prevent collapse, have placed a second bowl on top.

After the bowl has been handed over, the chef puts the ingredients on the 500-degree surface to cook along with the choice of meat — chicken, top sirloin or a seafood mix. Emmanuel Giraneza, another Mongolian grill chef, said that one of the most important parts about operating the grill is “reading the time it takes for the food to cook.”

Indeed, the chefs are extremely precise as to the procedure they follow. About two minutes after the vegetables and the choice of meat have cooked, the lo mein noodles or rice is added on top, and it cooks for a little bit longer.

It is then time for the customer to select the sauce to put on his or her creation — General Tso, honey soy or teriyaki, on select nights. According to Giraneza and Desbaigaae, the honey soy sauce is the most popular, but on the nights when teriyaki is available, that becomes the preferred choice.

Honey soy sauce is sweet with a hint of soy sauce, while General Tso has a savory flavor. The teriyaki sauce is a combination of the two flavors.

After several more flips and twists, the Mongo is ready to be given back to the customer in its finished form. This process takes about six minutes from when the initial ingredients are slapped down on the grill.

“Faster is better,” Giraneza said.

The grill runs two lines where each chef puts on five or six orders at once, depending on environmental pressures. Giraneza and Desbaigaae mentioned that in the beginning of the semester when customers do not know how the system works, it takes much longer than in the second semester when everyone knows the routine.

But for some students, the wait is still too long.

“It takes a long time, and there are a lot of other things that are really good; noodles never appealed to me,” said Steven Marsh ’07, explaining why he hasn’t had Mongo yet this year.

But some students have the exact opposite philosophy.

“I have waited at least 25 minutes sometimes, and by the time I get out of the line, all my friends have already finished dinner,” said Marcus Cohn ’07.

Despite the extra wait compared to other stations in the dining hall, the Mongo gets consistent customers throughout the three hours it is open every night. Desbaigaae has also worked at the wok station in the North Star dining facility, which is also very crowded at meal times.

On North Campus, it seems that crowds flock to wherever hot central and east Asian cooking surfaces are dishing out the goods.

Archived article by Ted Van Loan