The restaurant formerly known as Asian Grill is one of those downtown Oakland spots I've driven past for years without even once thinking about going inside. Located at the corner of 14th and Webster, the place has always struck me as being one of the sketchier-looking restaurants in the area — and almost certainly the most generically named.
"Asian Grill," the drab sign, which for now still hangs above the entrance, declares: "Japanese Sushi Bar. Mongolian Restaurant. American Breakfast." With such a seemingly random assortment of cuisines represented, what were the chances that any one of them would even be passably good? That was my thinking, anyway.
It was with great interest, then, that I read a recent post on the food-discussion forum Hungry Onion extolling the virtues of the restaurant's traditional Mongolian dishes — its handmade noodles, steamed dumplings, and so forth.
As it turns out, Asian Grill had a change of ownership in April. Enkhtuguldur Sukhbaatar — "Togi" to his friends — bought the restaurant from the Mongolian family that used to run the place. Sukhbaatar said he was a cook in Mongolia for fifteen years before moving to the Bay Area in 2010, after which he has mostly worked at Benihanas and other restaurants of that ilk. What Sukhbaatar is now calling "Togi's Mongolian Cuisine" is the chef's first restaurant of his own; he's in the process of making the name change official. Most notably, he has refashioned the place as a purely traditional Mongolian eatery — one of only a handful in the entire United States.
Hold up, you might be thinking. What about that Mongolian hot-pot restaurant with the really spicy food? The chain you're probably thinking of, Little Sheep, might be delicious, but it was founded in China, not in Mongolia, which is an independent state located to the north of central China.
Even more to the point: All of those "Mongolian barbecue" spots that are a staple of suburban strip malls everywhere — the ones where you ring the gong? — have even less to do with Mongolia. First popularized by restaurateurs in Taiwan during the Seventies, the buffet-style, pick-what-you-want-to-grill eateries were loosely based on Japanese teppanyaki. But the more brazen of the American incarnations spin a tale about how this style of flat-top grilling was inspired by the medieval foodways of nomadic Mongolian warriors, who, as the story goes, would kill a bunch of animals, spear the meat onto their swords, and cook it on their overturned shields, which they had placed over a large fire. This is fiction. Full stop.
"I'm not angry," Sukhbaatar said. "But none of those are really Mongolian."
What, then, is real Mongolian food? According to Sukhbaatar, it's mostly a wheat-based cuisine: lots of dumplings and noodles and only a little bit of rice, which doesn't grow in Mongolia due to the cold. The harsh climate also limits vegetable variety, which mostly consists of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, Sukhbaatar said. Beef and lamb, on the other hand, are plentiful. After all, Mongolia — a country of only three million people — is home to more than 20 million head of livestock.
One of the classic Mongolian dishes is buuz, a kind of steamed dumpling that resembles a rustic, oversized xiao long bao (aka Shanghai-style soup dumplings), both in terms of the crimped folds on top and the burst of juices that the dumpling releases when you take your first bite. Sukhbaatar makes his buuz from scratch, naturally. (It's not like there's a store where he could buy a pre-made version even if he wanted to, he pointed out.) The traditional way to eat these is to first pick the dumpling up with your hands and bite a small hole in the corner so that you can suck out the savory meat juices. You eat what's left of the wrapper and the dense, chewy beef filling with some kind of accompanying vegetable — the simple, mayonnaise-based potato salad that Togi's serves it with, for example.
Use the same basic technique to eat the equally juicy khuu-shur, or fried meat buns, which come five to an order. The beef filling for these flat meat pockets is extra onion-y — reminiscent of Afghan chapli kebab — and they come with a side of carrot-and-cabbage slaw, which you can scoop on top of the buns like you would the curtido that comes with a Salvadoran pupusa.
Don't be thrown off by the fact that no dipping sauce is provided with any of the various dumpling permutations. Sukhbaatar explained that, despite the various gloppy-sauced dishes that restaurants label as Mongolian in the United States, most Mongolians don't like food that's sweet or spicy. In fact, in most cases, Mongolian cooks use very few spices beyond basic salt and pepper — though they apparently have an enduring love for Maggi sauce (the MSG-laden — and very delicious — soy-sauce variant).
One of the most enjoyable dishes was a kind of noodle stir-fry called tsu-van (or tsuivan, as it's more commonly spelled). The dish didn't look like much — something akin to Cantonese beef chow fun, except for the fact that the noodles themselves were thinner and were obviously hand-cut. But Sukhbaatar explained the elaborate process for making the noodles: First, he throws a large sheet of dough onto the flat-top grill to give it a light char before cutting it up into thin strips. Then, after stir-frying some beef and vegetables in a pan, he throws the noodles on top and closes the lid. The noodles are steamed and then, once all the liquid evaporates, they're fried in the pan until they develop crisp, caramelized edges — an effect that's enhanced by the fact that Sukhbaatar serves the dish on a hot stone plate, which gives the toothsome handmade noodles an even more pronounced char. Pro tip: Despite Mongolian cuisine's aversion to spice, the server will bring over a bottle of sriracha if you ask. It makes for a tasty addition here.
The most unusual dish I tried was something listed on the menu as "dumpling stew," which turned out to be more akin to a very thin rice porridge: The "broth" is actually salted milk tea — a mild, pleasantly medicinal-tasting (chrysanthemum-esque?) concoction that's also the average Mongolian's beverage of choice. Together with the dense little meat dumplings, the combination of flavors intrigued. But, I have to admit, for someone who didn't grow up on the stuff, it was an awful lot of salted milk tea to drink.
If that sounds too adventurous for you, you can always go for the goulash, which was just a very tender beef stew — a remnant of the close ties between Mongolia and the Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century. This was served with a triumvirate of starches: rice, wedges of frybread, and, best of all, a very lush, carrot-flecked version of mashed potatoes.
Togi's is barely a month out of the gate, so you can forgive the place for its somewhat bare-bones, but thoroughly comfortable, vibe. And Sukhbaatar has ambitious plans: He's applied for a beer and wine license, and he plans to add Japanese-style bento boxes to the lunch menu — presumably to appeal to the teriyaki-loving office-lunch crowd.
More exciting, though, are the chef's plans to add what he says will be "more exotic" Mongolian foods. As a weekend special in the near future, Sukhbaatar might even roast a whole lamb in the traditional Mongolian manner: He'd heat up stones taken from a local river until they were glowing red and then seal them, along with the lamb, in an enormous cooking vessel — something akin to a giant pressure cooker.
That, Sukhbaatar said, is the real Mongolian barbecue.