In high school, my friends and I had a special activity to celebrate the end of exam week. When the last exam paper was turned in, we changed out of our uniform into what was then called â€˜civilian clothesâ€™ and we hied off to Mile Long (is it still called that?) for our quarterly all-you-can-eat Mongolian BBQ feast.
While Mile Long today is dodgy-looking with plenty of shuttered offices and even more adult entertainment lounges, in the early 90â€™s, it was a happening strip of restaurants. There were Korean, a smattering of Filipino, and about four restaurants that specialized in Mongolian BBQ.
Mongolian barbeque is basically a â€œcreate your own stir-fryâ€ meal in a bowl. Itâ€™s a smashing mishmash/hodgepodge of ingredients of oneâ€™s own choosing from a great variety of meats, seafood, vegetables, sauces, and spices. Once itâ€™s filled to the brim (and by this time, overflowing), the bowl is then carefully handed to the waiter in exchange for a numbered tag. The food is then stir-fried in a hot pan back in the kitchen.
This eat-all-you-can activity has its roots from who else, but the Mongols. Itâ€™s said that the hunting parties of the emperors Khan would celebrate their victories by communing in banquet-style tents on the banks of the river Khan-Balik. The Mongols would use their well-honed swords to prepare pieces of meat and vegetables. The food would then be cooked by searing it on their overturned shields that were heated by a roaring fire. Knives and large sautÃ© pans have replaced swords and shields in the present day; the only thing thatâ€™s new is the selection of sauces.
Indeed, while the maxim â€œhunger is the best sauce,â€ rings true, in Mongolian barbeque, itâ€™s the sauce that either makes or breaks your bowl. Itâ€™s the sauce or sauces that you do or donâ€™t put in that will affect the way your barbecue looks, smells, and tastes. My high school friends and I would often pass our bowls so that everyone would have a taste of each one. Pleasurable sighs of â€œYours is great!â€ to laments, â€œI like yours better than mine,â€ were often heard. Of course as is expected in volume cooking, there were occasions when some of us would get a bonus ingredient that we didnâ€™t remember adding: â€œHey, why do I have a red pepper slice here? I didnâ€™t put this in!â€
Iâ€™m the type of person who needs a recipe when working with food. My sauce mixture is more often than not a slap-dash, fly by the pick of my chopsticks affair. Tsamba lang (Itâ€™s all luck). Even when I follow a fellow dinerâ€™s lead to the letter, I still end up liking his or her barbeque better than mine. Some people just have that touch.
When the Mongolian BBQ restaurants in Mile Long shut down (why! why!), I felt that dull pain all food lovers get when their favorite restaurant closes down or a favored food item is discontinued. Itâ€™s really a heartbreak of sorts. Slowly, I got used to it, but sometimes something or someone would trigger the memory and then I remember again.
Thereâ€™s a somewhat prosaic restaurant along Jupiter Street in Makati with an equally unremarkable name: City Grill. Unlike a Gerryâ€™s or a Dencioâ€™s, City Grillâ€™s menu is more Continental. Often-ordered dishes include the creamy pesto chicken or fish fillet (P150/P160), and the prime rib (P275). To the restaurantâ€™s credit, thereâ€™s a section on the menu called â€œFrom the Grill,â€ the most popular of which is the boneless chicken inasal (P125).
The first time I came to City Grill, I had the prime rib just because I was hankering for steak and at that point, any steak would do. While its price alone indicates that itâ€™s more a peer of Sizzlerâ€™s than Highlands Steakhouse, itâ€™s all right.
But itâ€™s the Mongolian BBQ that I keep coming back for â€“ Iâ€™ve already clocked in five visits to City Grill just for it. For only P225, I can stuff myself silly with my ultimate stir-fry. I start off with a choice of white rice, vermicelli (sotanghon), egg noodles â€“ or all three! â€“ make my way through the meats, throw in a few veggies for health, dump loads of mashed garlic and crushed peanuts, and then my waterloo, the sauces. Since Iâ€™ve already mentioned that Iâ€™m no good without a recipe, I simply follow the City Blend, the restaurantâ€™s house concoction, the recipe of which you see here. It never fails to give me the perfect bowl of Mongolian BBQ. My god, I shouldâ€™ve had this recipe in high school!
The only thing that worries me about City Grill is that there are hardly any people when I go there. In fact, it doesnâ€™t seem to be drawing a crowd at all. When Iâ€™m here, I often have three waiters all to myself, so service here is a dream and me and my little group can make as much noise as we like. The owner tells me that they make money on functions, but I still think itâ€™d be worth it if people come here just for the Mongolian BBQ. Itâ€™s that good, and where else can you get Mongolian BBQ in Manila now? But then again, itâ€™s up to what YOU put in your bowl. And thatâ€™s where all the fun is. By the way, if youâ€™re like me and donâ€™t like dining in dark places, ask the waiters to crank up the lights a bit. Better light, better appetite, I say.
136-138 Jupiter Place Bldg.
Jupiter St., Makati City
Open from 11 am â€“ 2:30 pm/ 5-11pm
w-406 Philippine Stock Exchange Centre
Exchange Road, Ortigas Center, Pasig City