Richard Foss

Big change at Big Wok [restaurant review]

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Big Wok Mongolian Barbecue has improved its popular self serve buffet with personal distancing

Having the Big Wok staff plate the customer’s selections speeds service. Photo by JP Cordero

If you were trying to make a list of restaurants that wouldn’t be likely to survive in an era of personal distancing, Mongolian barbecues would be near the top. Part of the attraction of the experience is picking whatever you want from the raw items on the buffet and trickling your favorite combinations of sauce and seasonings on top of the heap of food. Then you stand in a tightly packed line as the chefs toss your food on top of a grill shaped like a huge steel mushroom, before heading back to your table with a steaming bowl of stir-fry. 

All of this is, as the text on your placemat will inform you, is part of a tradition that goes back to Genghis Khan and his nomadic horseman. This is a lie of massive proportions, because the style of dining was actually invented in Taiwan in 1951 by a celebrated comedian who opened a food stall in Taipei. He was going to call it Beijing style BBQ but references to that city were too political, so he called it Mongolian barbecue even though it had no connection to the tribal horsemen who rode the grassy steppes. 

Since that style of dining was invented so recently, one can hardly fault anyone for innovating on it even before the pandemic forced every restaurateur to reconsider their style of service. Most places with a buffet or salad bar have shut down, but Big Wok has made changes to the popular formula to adapt to the current reality of personal distancing. They have found ways to do this that generally don’t detract from the experience, and in some ways actually enhance it.

Bowls of food await the chef’s attention. Photo by Richard Foss

The biggest change is that you don’t actually serve yourself at that buffet line. Instead, you go down one side indicating what you want while an employee on the other side loads the desired items into a bowl for you. That sounds like it would slow down the line, but it actually speeds it up, because you don’t have to deal with the person in front of you fumbling with the tongs while picking through all the scallions to find the one they like. It also reduces the possibility that someone who isn’t adept with the tongs will drop ingredients into a different compartment, so makes things much better for those who have allergies or strong food dislikes. (They cater to people on restricted diets, and a sign by the grill advises diners to advise the cooks if they have an allergy so they can clean the grill extra carefully before cooking. I wish other restaurants took this as seriously.)  

There is no real difference in the cooking process, though the line is spread out considerably more and all the people in it are wearing masks. The process is still fun to watch and to smell, and it’s fast. I timed this with the stopwatch on my phone and found that from the raw food hitting the grill to plating the last bits took two minutes, fourteen seconds, and 54/100 of a second, give or take a millisecond. If you have ever wondered how a large restaurant could operate with only two Mongolian grills, this gives you the answer. It’s fast food that is also fresh, and you know it because you watched the whole process.

Your meal spends less than three minutes on the grill. Photo by JP Cordero.

By the time you get back to your table, the server has already delivered your rice, beverage, and the sesame bread that I find one of the more enjoyable aspects of dining here. Since it is hollow, some people take their Mongolian barbecue and create a sandwich, but it’s tasty whether you do that or have it on the side. They will keep delivering that bread if you ask, and I usually skip the rice and have a second piece.

As for the flavor of the Mongolian barbecue itself, this depends on the ingredients you have chosen. but is consistent in one way, mainly that the thinly sliced meat will be cooked medium, and the vegetables will be hot but will retain the freshness and flavor that fits the Chinese aesthetic. The final flavor of the dish depends on the sauces and seasonings that are added just before cooking, of course. Most regulars have a favorite combination, and the only part of the new experience that I don’t prefer is that now they add this for you. I like Mongolian barbecue highly spicy with a dash of vinegar and sesame seeds, and the person who anointed my bowl of ingredients was slightly more timid with the chili sauce than I would have been. It was good as it was, but next time I will know to ask them to be liberal with the hot stuff.

We considered getting seconds, but were full and decided instead on a second piece of bread to finish along with our wine.  Big Wok has a modest selection by the glass or bottle, a few beers, and sake. We chose a Blackstone Merlot that suited this cuisine well.  

There’s no option for dessert here except fortune cookies, but there’s a 31 Flavors right across the street and the Gelsons bakery right around the corner, and both are worth the walk for those with a sweet tooth. This evening we didn’t patronize either because dinner had been ample and satisfying. It didn’t hit our wallets very hard either — our food bill was less than 15 bucks each. At that price, you can go any time you get the urge for something fresh, spicy, and cooked by someone else. It’s not the way any Mongolian conquerors ever dined, but it suits California just fine. 

Big Wok is at 926 North PCH in Manhattan Beach. Open 11 a.m. – 3 p.m and 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. daily, parking lot in rear. No reservations accepted, takeout available. No website. (424) 398-0043. ER

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