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 ‘civilian clothes’ 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 90’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 “create your own stir-fry” meal in a bowl. It’s a smashing mishmash/hodgepodge of ingredients of one’s own choosing from a great variety of meats, seafood, vegetables, sauces, and spices. Once it’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. It’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 that’s new is the selection of sauces.
Indeed, while the maxim “hunger is the best sauce,” rings true, in Mongolian barbeque, it’s the sauce that either makes or breaks your bowl. It’s the sauce or sauces that you do or don’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 “Yours is great!” to laments, “I like yours better than mine,” 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 didn’t remember adding: “Hey, why do I have a red pepper slice here? I didn’t put this in!”
I’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 (It’s all luck). Even when I follow a fellow diner’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. It’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.
There’s a somewhat prosaic restaurant along Jupiter Street in Makati with an equally unremarkable name: City Grill. Unlike a Gerry’s or a Dencio’s, City Grill’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 restaurant’s credit, there’s a section on the menu called “From the Grill,” 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 it’s more a peer of Sizzler’s than Highlands Steakhouse, it’s all right.
But it’s the Mongolian BBQ that I keep coming back for – I’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 – or all three! – 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 I’ve already mentioned that I’m no good without a recipe, I simply follow the City Blend, the restaurant’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 should’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 doesn’t seem to be drawing a crowd at all. When I’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 it’d be worth it if people come here just for the Mongolian BBQ. It’s that good, and where else can you get Mongolian BBQ in Manila now? But then again, it’s up to what YOU put in your bowl. And that’s where all the fun is. By the way, if you’re like me and don’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 – 2:30 pm/ 5-11pm
w-406 Philippine Stock Exchange Centre
Exchange Road, Ortigas Center, Pasig City