Hulun Beir Mongolian Restaurant recently opened in the middle of what’s become an enclave of pan-Asian eateries on West Green Street in Old Pasadena. The name is a variation of Hulunbuir, a city in Inner Mongolia which, for geography buffs, is not even in the country of Mongolia, but in China. So, on the menu you’ll find Chinese influences, (Outer) Mongolian influences, even Korean and Russian influences since these countries are all nearby. You’ll also find on the menu “Mongolian BBQ” which is neither Mongolian nor barbecue (it’s closer to Japanese tepanyaki). Who cares? The food is really good.
Home to a nomadic culture with the coldest capital city on the planet, Mongolians tend to eat the meat of various roaming animals, including beef, mutton and yak. Fatty cuts are favored by the horse-riding wanderers to help them stay warm in winter. Chinese and perhaps Indian spices are added for pizzazz.
We’d heard great things about Hulun Beir’s grilled lamb kebab and it did not disappoint. Nothing like an Armenian lamb kebab this one has small cubes of spiced lamb with bits of sizzling fat still attached that pop in your mouth. It’s similar to pork belly but with a chewy, almost jerky-like texture redolent with a version of Chinese five-spice. True carnivores will enjoy going deeper into the Mongolian BBQ section of the menu with its options of beef aorta, pork sausage and beef tendon balls (alas, no yak). But my friends and I wanted to explore the world of the hot pot.
I will let you in on a secret because the wait staff certainly won’t. You have to fill out the paper menu like a sushi selection sheet and wave down the server with it to get your hot pot rolling. Once you’re all set, you’ll be as giddy as a school kid, but until then, they offer little help. On two nights there were three waiters who, for the most part, stood talking to each other and then disappeared into the kitchen for a while. The bartender in the adjoining room kept vacating the bar to get money elsewhere. There were only 10 people in the restaurant and bar but we often had to actively secure the help we needed. I think it’s just a matter of training or perhaps it’s all part of the Mongolian experience.
Once the hot pot arrives all negative feelings fly up and out the large ceiling fans that make the place look and sound like the cafeteria at Lockheed. There are about 70 choices for hot pot additives on the menu so it could be daunting. I simply tuned into my spidey-sense and picked six things in less than a minute. It worked because each item was better than the last. It may have helped that I was warmed up from some lychee soju (more about that later).
Your first choice is the broth. My favorite was the spicy herbal. Are there people in your party who don’t like spicy? Get the double broth. A large round pot is divided like a yin-yang symbol with one broth on each side. There is a non-spicy herbal, a tomato and a mushroom broth ($7.95 – $9.95), or if you really want to go all out get the lamb spine broth for $17.95. We opted for the two Mongolian herbal broths. They may not be as exquisite as some of the long simmering bone broths that are all the rage but these herb broths are way more interesting than any shabu-shabu broth I’ve had lately and fabulously unique with flavorings from pods I could not identify. Every time I asked the waiter for clarification on an ingredient, he answered (and I’m not kidding), “It’s, um, an Asian thing.”
After your broth is placed on the table’s electric burner and starts to boil gently, plates with generous amounts of additions start to arrive. We opted for “selected beef” — roll-ups of thin, semi-frozen, nicely marbled red meat that cooked in a moment in the simmering broth. Wonderful on its own, it improved with sauce. A 10-foot long bar of sauces, pastes and condiments is at all diners’ disposal. Bowls of sesame and mushroom pastes, bean curd and oyster sauces, chopped garlic and cilantro littered our table. The most popular by far were the salty leek flower sauce and the BBQ which is nothing like American BBQ sauce but rather an oily blend of fragrant ground spices.
A full dozen of perfectly cooked quail eggs (for only $4.95) were fun to pop into the broth and fish out now and then. Chinese yam rounds took a little longer to cook but were worth the wait. Shanghai cabbage (bok choy to you and me) and fresh spinach added crunch and chlorophyll. I highly recommend the tofu platter ($8.95) with super fresh tofu blocks and homemade noodles.
We didn’t even venture into the good-looking seafood section with scallops, squid tentacles and lobster balls or the more exotic meats like tongue, tripe and the curious luncheon meat. Buns and dumplings are also on the menu and might be the perfect thing for a light bite on their party light-strewn patio with a beaker of flavored soju. I hesitated to order the Korean liquor blended with yogurt, but after a complimentary taste (just ask), I couldn’t resist. Yogurt is a popular Mongolian food product, though it’s probably made from yak or mare’s milk over there. At Hulun Beir it’s good old cow’s milk yogurt with flavorings like coconut, strawberry and lychee. It’s mixed with soju and put on ice. What you end up with is a not-too-sweet, not-too-thick, not-too-strong drink that cuts the spice of the hot pot and compliments the flavors to a tee. Of course so does beer, which they have on tap and in bottles (including Tsingtao).
At the condiment bar, they have bowls of colorful fried puffs of some tuber and these delicious sesame-covered dessert balls with red bean paste in the middle. I fear that if Hulun Beir gains in popularity they may stop offering all these sauces and freebies. So you may want to go soon. Just bring your spidey-sense and a strong arm to flag down the waiters.
55 W. Green St., | Pasadena | (626) 685-9565 | hulunbeir.com
Beer & Soju/Major Cards