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Stirring advice from a star chef

The path to great Mongolian barbecue is simple, and separate

Phil Vettel

April 21, 2011

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Danny Bowien, the chef/owner of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, has won accolades for his tiny Mission District storefront and last month was named one of San Francisco's rising-star chefs of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Not bad for a 28-year-old who grew up in Oklahoma, didn't try sushi until he was 16, had his first taste of Korean food at 19 and who cheerfully says about his rule-breaking approach to Chinese food, "for all intents and purposes, we're doing it wrong."

By "wrong," Bowien means his insistence on using all-natural meats and organic products whenever possible (no mean feat for a restaurant whose dishes never break the $13 barrier), and his disdain for MSG and other shortcuts. But it's also an acknowledgement that his food isn't strictly authentic, nor is it trying to be.

This may explain why Bowien is such a fan of so-called Mongolian barbecues, wherein customers load their plates with vegetables, proteins, noodles and sauces from a long buffet line, before turning their selections over to a chef for a quick flash-fry on a hot-stone surface.

"I mean, it's not my first choice for dining," Bowien qualifies. "But it can be entertaining. It's like going to a sushi bar; sometimes the experience is amazing, and sometimes it's just good."

So how do you turn a good Mongolian barbecue meal into a great one? Bowien shared a few tips.

Don't overdo it: "The biggest mistake people make is to go all in," Bowien says. "They pile so many things on the plate and it becomes one big mess. You can't taste anything. Try not to overload; keep your flavors simpler."

Choose your proteins wisely: "I'd say to choose only two proteins," Bowien says. "I'm a huge fan of surf and turf, so if I were to pick two proteins, I'd go with lamb and calamari. I think calamari is awesome; if it's cooked properly, it has a nice sweetness, and calamari goes with a lot of things. And one thing we get out here that's awesome is squid. I'd pick lamb because it goes so well with the warm spices of Western Chinese food — chili paste, fennel, cumin, peppercorns.

"We're almost talking about a Cantonese approach (to the barbecue)," he says. "A little protein, lots of vegetables and noodles and sauce."

Know which vegetables to avoid: "You want fresh vegetables," Bowien says, "so stay away from stuff that comes from a can. Baby corn. Straw mushrooms. Water chestnuts are never fresh. Sugars can burn in high heat, and high-sugar vegetables can cook in a way you wouldn't want them to. A too-ripe tomato, for example, will burn too easily. Choose vegetables that don't have a ton of moisture to them, such as bok choy, peppers and onions. And bean sprouts; I love those."

Don't fear the spice: "I'd definitely go with a spicier sauce, hopefully one with warm spices," Bowien says. "Chile garlic, maybe with a tiny amount of peanut sauce to bring it out, or a light soy or a bit of black-bean sauce; something to play with the lamb's gaminess. Obviously you're restricted to the sauces the restaurant actually has, but that's what I'd look for."

Cook items separately as much as possible: This tip works for home chefs as well as Mongolian barbecue customers, says Bowien. "You want to cook the meat first, give it a good sear, then take it off, so it doesn't overcook, but you want that hard sear to caramelize the proteins," he says. "If you throw the meat and vegetables together, the vegetables will release water and your meat won't sear; it'll steam.

"After the meat is done, add the vegetables, and their liquid will essentially deglaze the cooking surface, and all those caramelized bits, which have an enormous amount of flavor, will flavor the vegetables. It's similar to the way we cook chicken breast — sear it skin-side down, flip it, and as it's resting make a pan sauce of white wine and stock, herbs and mustard. It makes it so good. And then the noodles; if you can, cook those separately as well.

"Ideally," Bowien says, "you'd ask the chef to cook everything separately — meat, then vegetables, then noodles — and combine them at the end. Maybe go with a couple of friends, assign each to one type of food and hand them to the chef one at a time."

In other words, approach Mongolian barbecue like a week's worth of laundry. Group like items together, run separate cycles and don't combine the final product until the very end.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @PhilVettel

"Ideally, you'd ask the chef to cook everything separately … and combine them at the end."

— Danny Bowien, chef, restaurant owner