As customers of cheap pizza delivery places in and around Oakland may have noticed, the majority of the employees are Mongolian. Apparently, most of the Mongolians in America live within a few square blocks nestled between downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt. This has prompted the opening of two Mongolian restaurants for the expat community-- Pizzarama (regular pizza place plus Mongolian) (now closed) and Asian Grill (sushi and American breakfast plus Mongolian) (still in business). By default, I tried Asian Grill (352 14th Street).
Asian Grill is the type of ethnic restaurant you never notice when you drive through a semi-gritty neighborhood. They are in plain sight, but you look past them.
I enter and realize I am the only customer there. During my meal, only two other people come in, but they are Mongolians who are there just to hang out. I assume it has become an unofficial lounge/community center for them. I don't think the two ever ordered anything.
From a cursory visual inspection, it is my opinion that sushi may not be the place's forte. This didn't stop the waiter from handing me the sushi menu. After a few minutes, I flag my man down and ask for the Mongolian menu.
I wouldn't say my table was spotless. The remnants of the last customers' meals were still on it. Without being culturally condescending or an apologist, I imagined myself in a rough and tumble caravanserai in the middle of the Gobi. Would I complain about crumbs on my table there? No.
My waiter takes forever to reappear and take my order. Is this the result of his Communist-era upbringing? Was he busy in the back? Or was this just poor service? I ask for the "steemed" (sic) buuz, which is a steamed dumpling similar to xiaolongbao. My waiter tells me it will take ten minutes. I said forget it, I don't have enough time on the parking meter. I opt instead for the meat pancakes (2 for $3) and Gulyash (goulash) stew ($7.95ish). Oh, and a salt milk tea.
Living on the frigid steppes with little agriculture and lots of livestock means that the Mongolian diet is very different from what we are used to. Meat, especially fatty meat, is desirable. So is salt. And lots of dairy. Vegetables, not so much.
The salt milk tea was an experience. The strongest flavor was beef stock, like bullion cubes in hot water. The second strongest flavor was milk or cream. Then, a hint of tea. I quickly got used to it and enjoyed it after a couple of sips. After a few bites of my salty meal, I took a sip of the tea and its saltiness disappeared.
The meat pie (khuushuur) was next. It was scaldingly hot and greasy. The doughy shell was chewy and the meat filling was cement gray. But it tasted okay. It's definitely a huge departure from the much crispier and lighter Mongolian meat pies that I'm used to from the Chinese chain Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot (in Union City and San Mateo).
The goulash entree was a bit disappointing. There was an ice cream scoop-ful of stale steamed rice. There was the cabbage salad which was just mediocre cole slaw. The mashed potato turned out to be a baked potato that had been mashed with a plastic spork. The stew itself tasted like it came out of a Dinty Moore can.
It all sounds like a below average meal. But I'm definitely going to go back. Why? Perhaps it's because it is the only authentic Mongolian restaurant in the entire Western Hemisphere. I want to try everything on the menu because I don't foresee myself going to Mongolia in the near future. Plus, I think Mongolian cuisine in general is just not that exciting and this meal I had was as good as it got. Maybe having mediocre food is part of being Mongolian.
Preview of Andrew Zimmern in Mongolia (and other places)