I’m not sure who came up with the restaurant chain BD’s Mongolian Grill, but I’m willing to bet that they’d never eaten a meal in Mongolia.
Because if they had, the menu would NOT contain items like this:
- Pad Thai
- Mongolicious Beef
And DEFINITELY not:
- Firecracker Shrimp
In fact, there wouldn’t be a menu at all, because Mongolian cuisine pretty much eliminates the need for one.
You’d walk in knowing exactly what you were going to eat:
And it wouldn’t be cooked in front of you by a troupe of talented swordsmen. No. Instead, a small, wiry man would drag a sheep into the center ring, knock it on the head with a mallet, and swiftly slit its throat.
Then a couple of the kids would wander over to help skin it and his mother would squeeze shit out of the intestines before boiling up the innards in a big vat of broth. She would then use your brand-new plastic tea mug to scoop out a serving, and hand it to you with a clipping of intestine that had been filled with blood and boiled. The cup would never smell the same again.
But I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Mongolia. There was actually a BD’s Mongolian Grill in Ulaanbataar, so I had no reason to believe it wasn’t at least slightly authentic. Knowing that it was an American chain, however, pushed us in a different direction.
To the Chinggis Beer Hall.
This place had the feel of a German beer hall, Mongolian-brewed Chinggis beer on tap, and a carnivorous menu. There were three of us, so we ordered a mix of dishes and got to work. The highlight was Jared’s hamburger, a towering pile of meat and bun, the likes of which we hadn’t seen anywhere in our rural Korean town. We gobbled it down and immediately decided that we’d return after our 11-day tour of Central Mongolia.
There were five of us on the tour; a Dutch couple, our American friend Mo, Jared & me. We were all excited about what lay ahead of us: sleeping in gers, roaming the plains, horseback riding, camel riding, swimming in the White Lake, and soaking in hot springs. We were even excited about our first lunch, served in a one-room restaurant with a couple of picnic tables inside.
“Lunch is mutton,” our guide, Tushig, said.
We all murmured approving noises and nodded our heads. Sure! Why not?
It was a steaming mix of mutton and handmade noodles, with a few oily carrots and onions mixed in. We ate enthusiastically, and when we said it was good, we meant it.
That night we were sitting in our ger when Tushig popped his head in.
“Mutton for dinner. Okay?”
Again, we ate heartily – it had been an eventful day of camel-riding, off-roading, and airag-drinking. We slept, exhausted.
The next morning I watched a man butcher a sheep, followed by a goat. It was riveting, seeing exactly how my food got to my plate, and I realized just how far-removed I was from the process. For lunch, we stopped at another family-owned restaurant.
We asked Tushig to help us translate the menu.
“Mutton,” Tushig said, without opening it.
That was when the light bulb went off. Mutton was it. The only option.
One day it was mutton dumplings, deep-fried in mutton fat. Then it was mutton spaghetti, mutton pasties, and boiled mutton. Mutton isn’t a bland meat – it’s strong, with a powerful taste and distinct odor. There’s a reason most people choose lamb, given the choice.
“Remember that burger?” Jared asked, pushing his mutton noodles around his plate mid-way through the trip. Mo and I moaned in ecstasy.
“Tell us,” Niek and Talien begged.
We described the burger in all its beefy, juicy glory. A solid plan was immediately formed; as soon as we returned to the capital, we were going to have hot showers and head straight for the Chinggis Beer Hall.
The thought kept us going through each subsequent meal, but the girls were the first to snap.
“I can’t eat mutton anymore,” Talien said, pushing her plate away. “Honestly. I can’t.”
But we did. We ate mutton every day for 11 days straight, topping up our precious supply of apples, peach rings and chocolate wafers every time we came across a grocery store.
By the time we returned to Ulaanbataar, we were salivating over the thought of the Chinggis Beer Hall. It had been an excellent trip – worth every uncomfortable minute of bouncing around in the van, eating a never-ending supply of mutton, not showering, and fighting off a horde of spiders while trying not to step on mice.
“Here it is,” I announced as we approached the Chinggis.
“Something’s not right,” Mo said. “It looks…empty.”
I peered through the dusty window. It was totally vacant. Not a single table or chair to be seen. No bartenders, no waitresses. No laughing patrons, and certainly no giant burgers.
Jared tugged on the door handle. “Locked.”
The Chinggis Beer Hall had been shut down, almost as if it had never existed at all.
Speechless and dejected, we wandered into the heart of Ulaanbataar, determined to find a decent hamburger, even if we had to splurge. We passed Indian, Thai, Japanese, and even BD’s Mongolian Grill, but burgers eluded us.
Finally, we stumbled upon a restaurant called California, an American-style diner.
I’m not proud of our die-hard tourist mentality (must…find…familiar…food), but I’ll tell you what – those were some satisfying burgers.