August 19, 2005
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Publication Date: Friday, August 19, 2005
Make your own masterpiece
Make your own masterpiece
(August 19, 2005) Colonel Lee's Mongolian Barbecue lets you get creative
By Elaine M. Rowland
Like a quick trip to the Island of Misfit Toys, stepping into Colonel Lee's Mongolian Barbecue restaurant takes you to a place with such a curious mix of people, the people-watching is as good a reason to go as the food.
Restaurants tend to attract a particular clientele, but that wasn't the case one Sunday night, when a Jerry Garcia look-alike sat hunched in a vinyl chair, reading, while a cute high-school clique "I knooow-"ed in the back; a young post-grad couple chatted at one of the dozen or so Formica tables, and a black-clad coven of Dungeons & Dragons fans darkened another corner of the restaurant, discussing magic powers.
It's so non-trendy, it's cool, this minimalist house of Mongolian comfort food that draws a ready supply of diners reassured by the notion that some things will never change. No flashy signs or gimmicky decor outside give away this quiet storefront on Mountain View's Castro Street -- instead, look for the glowing red "open" sign and the chef standing in the front window, enveloped in heat waves and steam from the giant grill. The same menu is served every day, and even the "$1.00 off beer today" signs are permanently affixed to the tables and front door.
Perhaps best of all at Colonel Lee's are the many simple, cheap meals you can create yourself, without having to cook.
Mongolian-style barbecue restaurants often feature a buffet of raw ingredients you select from, then turn the actual cooking over to chefs working a large grill, right there in the dining room. Here, the all-you-can eat dinner price ($8.95, or $5.50 for kids under 10) includes a cup of unexciting but passable egg drop soup with tofu, a soft "Chinese biscuit" that tastes like a cross between a deep-fried sopaipilla and baked bread with sesame seeds, your basic green tea, your basic white rice, and your basic fortune cookie. The self-serve egg roll appetizers are long, slim, somewhat greasy affairs, but they're still crispy, and once they're under a bit of hot mustard, who notices anything but watering eyes and freshly ventilated sinuses anyway? It's not gourmet, but it is sit-down dinner for two -- all you can eat -- for around $25, including tip and either beer, wine, soda or sake (about $.70 to $4).
The buffet, under a mural of Mongolian shepherds, has a small but fresh variety of raw vegetables and other ingredients for your stir-fried masterpiece. The assortment of carrots, broccoli, water chestnuts, squash, onions and cabbage is innocuous enough; you can't easily create a combo that's inedible. Just a word of caution here, however: Before you become unduly alarmed at the appearance of the beef, pork, lamb and chicken in the buffet, it's only sliced and frozen.
If you're feeling uncreative or just clueless, the man behind the grill will offer advice. There's also a little cheat sheet on the wall with recipes, of sorts. I tried a bowl of pork, broccoli, water chestnuts and noodles with sweet-and-sour sauce and medium-hot oil. The sweet-and-sour wasn't overly either, but the combo worked well otherwise. My husband went for beef, hot oil, lobster sauce, onions and cabbage (with a side order of mouthwash). We found that none of the flavored sauces will beat you over the head, although when the sauce or oil placard in the buffet says "hot," heads up. All the meats were so thinly sliced they flavored the dishes subtly, lamb included.
After dinner, try your hand at swirling a vanilla soft-serve cone at the ice cream machine near the buffet. Don't be nervous. But everyone is watching to see how you do.
At lunch, a steady stream of regulars pours into Colonel Lee's, and it takes on the feel of a big-city lunch counter where you can eat with your cronies or even comfortably by yourself. The waitresses bring rice, soup, water and tea in quick succession, like a well-oiled machine, while food from the kitchen is endlessly shuttled to the buffet, and empties are back to the kitchen.
The $6.95 lunch menu is similar to dinner's, minus the biscuit appetizer and lamb at the buffet. I think I saw Jerry Garcia eating there again, but then there might be more than one bearded engineer in Mountain View. Kids under 10 eat for only $5. I didn't actually see any kids eating here, but they're welcome. I made a chicken, garlic sauce, squash and green onions combo for lunch, and I hope it's not bragging to say I recommend it.
Colonel Lee's is what it is -- a reliable cheap-eats place without a lot of variety that has nonetheless developed a wide fan base. The service is pleasant, but not four-star: Some empty bowls are removed, some left on the table. The staff isn't highly conversant in English, but the menu is simple and the options limited, so what else is there to talk about? Although I did wonder about the Great Wall of China painting on the back wall: Wasn't that built to keep the Mongols out?
Colonel Lee's Mongolian Barbecue, 304 Castro St. (near W. Dana), Mountain View; (650) 968-0381
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; Dinner: 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Parking: street; Alcohol: yes; Highchairs: yes; Catering: no; Outdoor seating: no; Noise level: quiet; Bathroom cleanliness: yikes
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