The first Friday in January marked the grand opening of Masaki's Mongolian Grill and Sake Bar in Arcata, a Pan-Asian spin-off from Masaki's Kyoto Japanese Restaurant in Eureka. Even though I'd been hearing about the place for months, all I really knew was the name, which seemed exotic and intriguing -- I had no idea what a Mongolian grill might be. I learned opening night.
It works like this: Diners fill up a ceramic bowl, choosing from a buffet stocked with ingredients. Vegetables are on one end -- Asian cabbage, bok choy, carrots, celery, onions and peppers for example (plus wild mushrooms for a Humboldt twist). Thin-sliced beef, chicken and pork are on the other. (There are upgrade options for prawns, scallops and high-end Kobe beef for a few dollars more.) Chef Eric Masaki advised piling the bowl high since everything cooks down on the grill.
Last is an array of crocks with Asian-style sauces. For my dish I mostly followed Masaki's advice and used a dipper of fish sauce, a couple of dips of garlic sauce and one of chili oil. I augmented his suggestions with a dollop of hot chili sauce.
Your assembled DIY stir-fry combo bowl is handed to one of the cooks and emptied onto a large circular steel cooking table (like a griddle or a "grill") where it's rolled around with long, sword-like bamboo spatulas until everything is done.
Your cook then returns your meal to the bowl and adds optional garnishes: chopped peanuts, green onions, sesame seeds and some sort of Asian flat bread wedges.
You pay a set price of $8.49 for the bowl, with an all-you-can-eat option for serious eaters at $12.99.
A little research shows that this so-called "Mongolian barbecue" cooking style has very little to do with the nomads of Mongolia, who follow a pretty boring diet. For the most part they eat dairy products and plain meat (from yaks, goats, cows, horses and sheep), with virtually no vegetables.
Mongolian BBQ is actually similar to Japanese teppanyaki flat-grill cooking. It became popular in Taiwan in the mid-1950s, then caught on in the U.S. in the 1990s. It got its start stateside in the Midwest, where a couple of prominent chains franchised the concept: BD's Mongolian Grill and HuHot Mongolian Grill (the later run by the same family that runs Godfather Pizza).
How did we end up with one in Arcata? Chef Eric Masaki grew up in Southern California, far from the Midwest. He discovered Mongolian barbecue in mom and pop versions around Los Angeles, restaurants he remember as "interactive and fun" places to eat.
Masaki got his start in the restaurant business working at Cho Cho San, a sushi bar where you pluck your plates from a little train that chugs around the bar. After bouncing among a long series of sushi joints, he expanded his skills cooking at a French bistro.
"When I moved here I started doing sushi for Tomo for minimum wage, but that didn't last long," he recalled. He went on to Restaurant 301, then Hurricane Kate's and returned to the world of sushi at Kyoto. After about a year on the job, he asked the owner, Kyoko Clark, if she might want to sell the place. She agreed and he began the process of taking over. "She was a really awesome person to learn from," said Masaki. "Most of her recipes were really simple. She knew how to bring out the flavor naturally."
You sense that sort influence in the non-Mongolian side dish menu and on the hand-written specials board. We tried the seared scallops on a bed of pureed Japanese squash garnished with cilantro pesto an snow peas -- a small feast of natural flavors at $11 and a small plate with thin-sliced smoked duck breast atop a lightly dressed cold noodle salad for $12.
"With the specials, I just wanted to keep things exciting, have a chance to be really creative," said Masaki.
His reason for starting the new venture was more pragmatic. After running Kyoto for six years, he was thinking about the future. He realized that he and his wife Jenny were never going to make enough to raise a family -- and eventually retire -- just doing sushi. As he explained, "It's really labor intensive and doesn't leave a lot of room to make money."
So, he wondered, "What's the opposite of sushi? What's a really low overhead restaurant?" Mongolian barbecue seemed to fit the bill.
Before Masaki took over the space in Arcata, it was a cyber café with a small kitchen. Over the course of a year, the room was basically gutted to make way for an open restaurant with a wall dividing the buffet and grill area from the sushi bar. He found a secondhand Mongolian grill in Oregon, but had to install a new hood.
Financing the project wasn't exactly easy. "None of the banks would loan us money. As soon as we said, 'Restaurant,' they'd say no."
He did manage to get an $80,000 line of credit based on ownership of Kyoto. For the rest of the money, he turned to the Arcata Economic Development Corporation, which helped him assemble a $150,000 loan package drawing on the local Small Business Center among other sources.
He's hoping the Mongolian barbecue concept is just what Arcata needs. "I figure we'll get college kids who want a ton to eat," he said, "along with other people who just want to have some tapas-style plates, sip some really good sake and relax for a couple of hours."
Watching diners work their way down the buffet on opening night, some of them piling bowls high with thin sliced beef or pork, made this former restaurant manager wonder about his food cost projections -- but it didn't worry Masaki.
"It all balances out," he said. "A lot of people are vegetarians; some just want some noodles, maybe with some green onions or whatever. I guess we'll see how it works out in the coming weeks."
Ready to see how it works? Masaki's Mongolian Grill and Sake Bar is at 475 I St. in Arcata, near Samoa Boulevard. It's open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Reservations at 707-822-2241.