This a great time of year for wandering the city’s streets and beaches, and one of my favourite quick stops on the go is the Mongolie Grill BBQ restaurants that dot the city. What is interesting about these restaurants is that they are neither Mongolian nor particularly BBQ, but Vancouver has a love affair with the format. Many years ago I travelled to Mongolia, and though I was amazed by the yurts, camels, fermented mare’s milk, and other wonderful elements of high steppe culture, I did wonder why there didn’t seem to be any sign of stir frying, grilling, or choosing your own ingredients and sauces from a buffet. The food in Mongolia tended heavily toward stews and chunks of very chewy mutton. So where did the Mongolie Grill concept come from, if not Mongolia?
It turns out that the Mongolie Grill originated in Taiwan in the 1950s, borrowing concepts from Japanese Teppanyaki and Chinese stir fry. The concept was very popular with tourists during the 1960s and 1970’s, jumping the Pacific sometime late in the 1970’s. Vancouver seems particularly fond of the concept, hosting six such restaurants in the city compared to the one or two found in most North American centres. Seattle has nine, suggesting the Pacific Northwest is a hotbed of stirfry eaters. What is interesting is that each of these restaurants presents a slightly different origin myth, usually involving soldiers frying food on a shield, or Mongolian spies frying food on an inverted Chinese pot. These origin myths, though completely fiction, haven’t changed very much over the years, and represent a lovely example of what culinary theorists call the creation of authenticity. The food must be Mongolian, one reasons, as after all, it says so on the menu.
All of the Mongolie restaurants in the city are a little bit different, and people have clear favourites. My personal preference is the one on Denman a little North of Robson, which has a good all you can eat price, and excellently fresh vegetables, and by far the best sauces of the choices in Vancouver; they are much thicker and richer than most of the Mongolie grills in the city. At this location they also sometimes offer a little crockpot of homemade black pepper sauce; this little extra is a treat worth trying if you can stand the heat.