The Weekly Eater


Frank Lau cooks an elaborate stir-fry in his large Mongolian grill.

An old favorite finds a new
way to give customers a lift

Mongolian Bar-B-Que seems to pack up its drum of a grill every few years and move on, an urban nomad in search of better real estate, from Waikiki to Chinatown, to Waialae Avenue, and now 12th Avenue. In between moves, it was natural to think the worst, that maybe this restaurant -- like so many others -- had succumbed to negative economic forces. Then it surfaces again, grill and menu intact.

Mongolian Bar-B-Que was one of the restaurants that kept me alive 20 years ago, when its "mini" dish, at about $3, was just right for someone on a student's budget, though, come to think of it, not much has changed except now I'd call it a homeowner's budget.

Around the time I was discovering Mongolian Bar-B-Que, I also awakened to the misery of traffic, carpooling to the University of Hawaii from Waipahu from 4 a.m. to beat traffic, then snoozing in the car until Cantonese class at 6:30 a.m.

Talk back then was of building a rail system that would run from Pearl City to Manoa. I was all for it, as was Ben Cayetano, a young senator I interviewed for the student newspaper. It was a no-brainer issue. The cost to the state would have been a ridiculously low -- as far as government projects go -- $10 million to $20 million because your federal tax dollars were paying up the bulk of the cost. (Better we get our money back than have it go to California or Nevada, right?)

Well, our legislators back then were no more visionary than they are now, and we are suffering the consequences. Having a rail system might have helped to ease today's general economic malaise. I don't think anybody likes dealing with traffic and parking, and now, aggressive HPD ticketing campaigns. It makes a person want to stay home rather than go out and possibly help all the merchants, restaurants and nightclubs hurting for business.

Gigi Lau cools her freshly baked rolls, which she hand-rolls every day.

I GUESS THE owner of Mongolian Bar-B-Que made the traffic connection, too. Now facing more competition than in the past, the restaurant has introduced a people delivery service in which parties of two to 22 will be picked up -- from downtown to Waikiki -- plunked down at the restaurant, then returned to the original pickup point after filling up.

It's a bit strange to have this door-to-door service at a mom-and-pop, but what a great idea! I loved leaving the car behind. It was a luxury to feel so unencumbered. The driver was on time, and the van ride from Restaurant Row was a speedy 10 minutes -- no driving in circles in the always-busy Kaimuki parking lots or digging for quarters for meters.

I imagine that after 20 years, many are familiar with the Mongolian Bar-B-Que concept, essentially a glorified chop suey stir-fry of won bok, bean sprouts, round onions, green onions, cabbage and tomatoes, with slivers of carrot and celery. You get to choose the kind of meat or seafood you want in it, then the whole mass is served with rice and a sweet, hand-rolled sesame bun. That's it.

In the past I'd have lamb with my mini ($6.45), but in this PC era, that's no longer available. Instead, you have a choice of beef, pork, chicken or tofu, and you must choose rice or bun. I still prefer the simplicity of the mini to the more elaborate super deluxe ($13.45), which allows you any combination of beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, scallops, imitation crab and calamari. The barbecue sauce on top of the seafood is just too treacly for the rest of the dish. I prefer adding a pinch of the restaurant's chili-garlic sauce.

They also make a won ton soup ($5.95) worthy of any Chinese household, with dumplings that taste just like the ones my mom makes. Oxtail soup ($7.45) also has a homespun quality, flavored with five-spice and tangerine peel. The peanuts in the soup could have been firmer, but that's a personal bias that didn't interfere with the rest of the soup, which is topped with the requisite cilantro and served with rice and plenty of grated ginger on the side.

Spring rolls ($4.45) are also done Chinese style, filled with cabbage and a bit of chicken, served with a pink pineapple sauce more sour than sweet.

The other high-end dish here is the $12.45 steak and shrimp combo, but the whopping 10-ounce New York steak can be overdone. You can't go wrong with the kalbi short ribs ($8.95). And save some room for a dessert of hot fudge sundae before the ride home.


1145C 12 Ave. /739-1916; for driver call 853-2338

Food StarStar1/2

Service StarStarStar

Ambience StarStarStar

Value StarStarStar

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays
Cost: About $12 to $25 for two

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Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

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