Update: American Chopstick has closed permanently.
I can think of few restaurant genres less Asian than the “Mongolian barbecue.” Yes, Taiwan gave us the recipe for the food, thinly sliced meat and veggies, grilled on a large, flat, circular griddle with what I’ve always thought of as a pair of giant chopsticks, but the principle of the thing seems more at home in the U.S. than just about anything I can think of.
I’ve often heard a particular claim, about whose age and origin I care not to speculate, that puts forth the hypothesis that
“there’s no accounting for taste.” In other words: objectivity sometimes fails miserably. With food, it starts with “may contain peanuts,” quickly heads on through “kosher and vegetarian meals available,” and barrels on by “special orders don’t upset us” in the general direction of “cook it yourself, you picky bastard.” Somewhere finickiness and laziness balance each other out, and around here, that happens at a Mongolian barbecue. You pick your veggies, your meats, your noodles, and your sauces. One minute of flash-grilling by an accommodating cook in a friendly white apron, and presto, you get to eat your meal. In the realm of food, I can’t think of anything more American. In the U.S., soy sauce sits on every table in every Chinese restaurant, but in China, you’ll probably only find it in the kitchens.
So that leaves us with Asian-style cooking, in an American-style restaurant. Mongolian barbecues like the ones that I first ate at back in Arizona have a European American owner who hires a few Asian American cooks to teach a mostly Hispanic American staff how to use the grill. On the other hand, here in Bloomington, we have American Chopstick, which does things a bit differently. The restaurant must have more than three people who work there, but I’ve eaten there five or six times, and I always see the same waiter/busboy and hostess/cashier in the front and the same cook in the back. I find the rest of the staff friendly and helpful (they even cooked extra doughnuts for us one night after the kitchen had closed), but it’s the guy in the back, the one with the giant chopsticks, that makes American Chopstick different.
The first time we ate there, the look of the place didn’t inspire me with confidence. The building seemed small, and the place looked as though its designers had utilitarian, rather than aesthetic, values in mind. A small selection of standard Chinese buffet items sits in front of a long bar of vegetables, and as you head around back, you pass a small folding table with cookies and a short bar of meats and sauces before arriving at the grill. If you want noodles, you’ll have to settle for spaghetti, and while it probably tastes just like any other kind of noodle after grilling, I haven’t actually tried it yet. They do have bamboo shoots, which counts for a lot in my book, as well as a decent selection of other vegetables, both American and Asian. They have a diverse variety of meats as well, usually including a few seafood items. If you normally frequent other Mongolian barbecues where they cut the meat so thinly that it shrinks to nearly nothing on the grill, watch out when you fill your bowl. American Chopstick does things differently, and you’ll end up with an enormous pile of meat if you try to compensate for shrinkage.
I’ve really come to enjoy this place, but it took me, a seasoned veteran of the Mongolian barbecue, a few visits to figure things out. In the interest of making your first experience more pleasant and also of keeping the place in business, I’ve got a few words of advice.
- No matter how much it looks like the chef placed those sauces there for you to build your own sauce, and regardless of how much you really, really want your food to taste a particular way, resist the urge to put any sauce on your food. Let the guy with the giant chopsticks do it. He knows how to do his job.
- If you do have a preference, say so quickly, clearly, and before the guy with the giant chopsticks gets a hand on your bowl, which he will reach for when you you least expect it. Keep it simple: “something sweet” or “extra garlic.”
- Do not worry when the guy with the giant chopsticks seems to ignore you. He has heard everything you’ve said, and unless you asked him for something that would taste horrible, he’ll do what you ask for. It took three visits before I ever heard him speak a word, and that happened after I insisted on pouring 6 scoops of crushed garlic before letting him go to work on the sauces and cooking. Looking at my bowl in disgust, he shook his head in disdain. “Too much garlic.” He was, of course, absolutely correct. I’d calculated the proportions as though I had a big wad of noodles in the bowl, but I only had meat and vegetables this time. My friends have informed me that after I left with my bowl, he continued complaining to my dining companions. “Too much garlic.”
- Do not worry when the guy with the giant chopsticks starts adding more meat to your bowl, adding sauces that you didn’t think you wanted, or doing anything else that seems like it will ruin your meal. My heart still skips a beat every time he takes my bowl, but I always end up satisfied.
The only times I’ve ever experienced sub-par food at American Chopstick happened when I tried to make the sauce myself, and I can’t really blame them for that. I should also mention that I even like the tiny little buffet selection. It appears as if they went to all the little Chinese restaurants with “100+ items!” and pulled out the six dishes that I actually eat. I particularly recommend the crab Rangoon and those little fried balls of dough covered in sugar. Especially the little fried balls of dough covered in sugar. Much better than any fortune cookie.
Yum – 3, Ooh – 2, Ah – 2, Wow – 3.5 (Huh?)