I finally made it to ‘Chinatown’ in Washington, DC this summer. As we were traveling on foot, my friend – a lifetime resident of the DC area – suggested that we try Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Restaurant. I like Mongolian Barbecue as much as the next guy and it was convenient, so why not give it a shot.
The restaurant, located on ‘H Street NW’, is easily recognized by the ornate façade advertising both a seafood restaurant and Mongolian barbecue. The restaurant is upstairs while the ground floor houses the Mongolian Barbecue.
Having eaten at both chain and independent Mongolian restaurants, I have grown to appreciate the differences. While the Chang operation does hold several restaurants, this is an independent operation, and that is reflected in several ways. To begin with, pricing is set at $17 per person for ‘all you can eat’. Now, if all you CAN eat is one well-apportioned bowl, yes it is an expensive proposition. Allegedly, five bowls is the record, whereas my friend and I agree that we over-ate at the end of two bowls and two beers apiece. In addition to your build-your-own bowl, rice and pickles (e.g. sweet cabbage, carrots, etc.) are served, not enough to offset your bowl, but enough to offer a different flavor and texture. And the meal is capped by a simple serving of ice cream.
At most chain Mongolian BBQ restaurants, the vegetable options are almost like a salad buffet, with everything from peas to eggs to cauliflower. At Cheng’s, however, there are about one dozen items to choose from including sprouts and cabbage, and what I would term ‘spaghetti noodles’ – with four different meats available (lamb, pork, beef and chicken…with shrimp available @ $2.95 extra per bowl) . I am not sure how someone of the vegetarian bent would embrace this, as it seems like a limited variety of vegetables to work with. Fortunately, I am not vegan, so I compensate for the limited variety of veggies by adding various meats. At most chain restaurants the guide is to ‘veg up’ as much as you want, but restrict your meat selection to one item. That is not the case at Tony Cheng’s. Add whatever combination of meat to your bowl as you would like.
When it comes to selection of sauces, you have about eight or nine options. My palette is not so sensitive to detect slight nuances in blends, so I opted to let the chef make the decision for me. If you do not want the chef to concoct in his opinion, you need to speak up and tell him to use only what you have already added to the dish. If you do not speak up, the chef has a tendency to adjust it to his liking, – which, dependent on your palette – may be too hot or spicy. As always, tip the guy on the grille, about $1/bowl is the expected rate.
When we at there, we arrived right around six o’clock on a Tuesday evening and were only two of about eight patrons. However, by the time we left, which would have been close to eight o’clock, the restaurant was full. I mention this because, although it’s ‘self serve’ for the main course, the waiter ensured we were never lacking for side dishes (rice & pickles) or libation.
All said and done, I gave the restaurant four stars, primarily for the flavor of the food, attention by the wait staff (not helicoptering and not invisible either), and pricing structure. That being said, I would point out that dinner was two men with voracious appetites, who do enjoy their food. If you are more of a ‘one and done’ type consumer, you will probably find the $17/bowl a bit expensive, as this is around twice what one would pay at a chain restaurant. I would recommend this restaurant should you be in Chinatown and looking for a nice dinner in a casual environment. We did not dine in the upstairs restaurant, so I cannot speak to the quality or ‘authentic’ elements of that menu.
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