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Flat Top Grill, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Illustration by John Copley.

Generation Gap

bd's and Flat Top reviewed

by M. B. Lewis

From the April, 2011 issue

My family has never been of one mind about bd's Mongolian Grill. It always rated pretty highly with my two sons, who like many teens consider it a premier place to eat lots of food, particularly meat and fish, for a modest fixed sum. In the past, I hated the loud, pounding music and harsh-smelling cloud of burnt soy sauce that hovered over the corner of Main and Washington. More than once, I gave the boys sufficient cash to eat all they wanted of whatever they wanted, and left them to enjoy the theater of sweating, theatrical alpha-type grillers holding forth at a circular communal fire pavilion. Then we grown-ups went to dine somewhere more refined nearby.

In recent years, the acrid scent has diminished. And a few months ago, the Observer was contacted by a publicist promoting appealing-sounding new dishes like lettuce-wrap fish tacos, Tuscan chicken, and basil and charred tomato pasta. Had the whole macho, warrior-sword, fiery feast scene given way suddenly to, gasp, civilization?

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Well, yes and no. A Sunday lunch confirmed that bd's has changed for the better in some substantive ways. First and foremost, healthy foods are readily available, including brown rice and an extensive salad bar with more than a dozen appetizingly crisp veggies, all free with your entree bowl.

More fresh options line the create-your-own-stir-fry buffet, including big chunks of mahi-mahi, strips of lean chicken and duck (!), and many more options (including raw eggs). The menu indicates which sauces are gluten free, vegetarian, low calorie, and low carb, but good luck finding them among crowded and poorly labeled tubs on the last ice table before the grill.

The little black cups provided for the sauces triggered an aha! moment. Here's the reason the burnt soy sauce smell outside has faded: the grillers now cook your veggies and protein first, adding the sauce for sizzle only at the last minute. My customized mixture of calamari, shrimp, cilantro, green onion, broccoli, mung bean sprouts,

...continued below...


and lemony sauce came out pretty good, I thought. The linebacker-size griller had boasted that he knew exactly how long to cook my food, and he did.

It's darling to watch tweener kids put together their own bowl of what they like best (mostly pasta and meat) and proudly carry it from the grill station back to the family table. There's empowerment in mixing your own. Creating an entree from your favorite foods and leaving out everything else is the great attraction in the Mongo model--both for the consumption and entertainment value. A fair number of "group dates" of young teens and tweeners turn up here, looking like they're having a good time out on the town, giggling about their food likes and dislikes.

The publicist's "Fun Fresh Food limited-time menu" turned out to be just a rack of recipe cards near the soup and salad bar. You snatch your choice, then go hunting for the listed ingredients--including, for the fish tacos, doubling back to the salad bar to get cucumber tzatziki sauce (here a heavy sour cream-based version instead of the traditional tangy yogurt).

Latin- and Continental-inspired recipes may seem strange at a place named after Mongolia, but bd's has the makings of some good meals. I basically combined the two suggested fresh Italian recipes, and found the pesto above average for a middle-tier restaurant and the char-grilled tomatoes crispy-sweet and fragrant with my pasta. If you resist the temptation to improvise too much--perhaps throwing jerk spice on your fish tacos at the last station, as I did, for a grainy texture and discordant flavor--you could enjoy the benefits of both worlds. Meaning, suggestions for guided preparation don't have to cancel out the "you rule" concept.

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So far, so good. But a return visit on a Friday night reminded me why I stopped coming here about a decade ago. Crowds lessen the charms of this place. Stuff you didn't select migrates across a crowded grill and turns up on your plate--two gum stick-sized glops of egg whites in our case, confirming my fears that the grillers' trick of tossing eggs in the air with their sword-tongs isn't all that controlled. You can pick out egg, of course, but many of the sauce ladles and serving tongs felt sticky from heavy amounts of handling. Staffers clearly were struggling to keep everything separated (my stomach churned a bit seeing where corn salsa splashed and pineapple landed). Looking up bd's last restaurant inspection report, from November 2010, increased rather than allayed my concerns. The score was four critical and sixteen noncritical violations, many related to food storage and display. Yikes.

This ain't a place for the faint of heart. But slogans on staffers' T-shirts basically advertise that, proclaiming "Go Mongo," "Buckeyes [or Spartans] taste like chicken," and "We do it on a grill." The atmosphere is chaotic bordering on frenetic even before the chorus of grillers starts to sing "Happy Birthday" (or "I'm a Little Teapot," as they did for some reason on our Friday night). Even the corporate website clangs percussively when opening.

Clearly, many people love this growing chain--it started in Royal Oak in 1992 and has thirty-four locations at last count, including, according to the website, the only American restaurant franchise in Mongolia. I'd guess that many loyal fans belong to the demographic that would expect a sticky floor at a frat party and thus would not complain about a few sticky ladles.

Those living in southeast Michigan and particularly focused on value are likely also pleased that in January bd's lowered the price on unlimited bowls of soup, salad, and stir fry at lunch by $2, to $10.99. It also started charging $2.99 for doggie bags. "Corporate made us do that," a hostess told me. Yet I saw one heavyset fellow load up his to-go bowl with well over a pound of various meats--certainly more than $2.99 worth.

Mixed grill? Go Mongo, indeed.

bd's Mongolian Grill

200 S. Main

913-0999

Sun.-Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m,

Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Lunch $8.99 ($7.99 vegetarian), $10.99 unlimited. Unlimited soup and salad only, $5.99. Dinner $12.99 ($10.99 vegetarian), $14.99 unlimited. Unlimited soup and salad only, $7.99.

Wheelchair friendly.

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Across town, on Washtenaw in a building in the middle of the Huron Village parking lot (usually crowded with Subarus and SUVs circling in on Whole Foods), a new Mongolian-ish-style grill opened last fall. The Flat Top Grill is the sixteenth in a chain founded in Chicago in 1995, and its take on the create-your-own-stir-fry concept varies from bd's in a few interesting ways.

Most noticeably, you don't stand around a hot theater at Flat Top watching the grilling of your food performed. Rather, you begin by writing your name on a wood popsicle-style stick and hanging it on a tippy, two-bowl rack. You then walk through the veggie buffet line filling your big black bowl--I was impressed by an attractive purple cabbage-carrot-green onion mix and the half-dozen vegetable protein options, including tasty barbeque-inspired varieties. Your next stop is the sauce table, where an aproned sauce sommelier makes recommendations about what to ladle over your veggies while encouraging you to take tastes in tiny paper cups. One unique sauce here is a horseradish cream that was yummy mixed with beef and onions. I felt pretty smug thinking of that combo, since other than barbecue, it was one of few non-Asian-soy-saucy combos I could envision here.

At the last buffet station, you put your raw meat and seafood into a small red bowl, so it can be cooked first and longest. Finally, you select colored plastic sticks indicating how you want your food customized: into soup, for example, or accompanied by grilled roti bread (free) or shrimp ($1.99 per portion). There are also sticks to indicate food allergies, but if they're serious allergies I'd advise a bit more research and advocacy before embarking on a meal at any buffet-style place.

When you've got all pertinent sticks on your rack of bowls, you leave it on the grill counter and head back to your table. If you're watchful, you may be able to glimpse your creation sizzling off in the distance. It's served to you at your table when it's ready.

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The dining experience is more sedate than bd's, with calmer music and a decidedly older-looking clientele. Flat Top also provides more nutritional information about its sauces (including sodium levels) and states that none have MSG. I feel like I'd have to go a lot of times to really get a sense of all the sauces at either place, but in addition to my beef and onions with horseradish, I was happy with the Thai-inspired curry I put together from lots of crunchy veggies and generous sprinkles of peanuts and green onions.

Flat Top offers decadent sundaes for dessert, as does bd's, where the lighter choice is a smaller sundae. Flat Top's less- caloric option is a Cinnamon Fruit Roti. It's grilled flatbread rolled in cinnamon sugar and wrapped around chopped pineapple and strawberries, then drizzled with fruit sauce and topped with vanilla ice cream. It tastes fresh, not syrupy sweet--and with no onion or meat overtones either, as I feared there might be (I'm told they cook it on a different part of the grill). And on a completely novel note, on weekends Flat Top grills up custom breakfast "scrambles" and pancakes.

Flat Top's prices are similar to bd's, but there are no separate salad or soup bars, fewer meat options, and no impromptu theater at the grill. The restaurant inspection violation score was lower too: one critical and two non-critical violations at its inaugural Michigan inspection in January 2011. Maybe because the place is smaller and has less of a "food and fun " party atmosphere, it seems tidier and more under control.

In concept, bd's and Flat Top are such close kin that they even share a subtitle--both websites invite you to "create your own stir-fry." Since you'll be doing the creating, which you favor may have less to do with gastronomy than with your generation. Isn't choice a wonderful thing?

Flat Top Grill

3275 Washtenaw (Huron Village Center)

531-0230

Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.,

Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Lunch $8.99 & $9.99 (unlimited).

Dinner $12.99 & $14.99 (unlimited). Sat. & Sun. breakfast until 11 a.m., $9.99 unlimited.

Wheelchair friendly.    (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2011.]

 

 
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