- YOU PICK, THEY GRILL: You can watch if you like.
We've never really liked do-it-yourself restaurants. Back when we were a kid, our parents held a lot of their special occasions at a place where they let you cook your own steak. After picking a hunk of beef from a case, the diner was assigned a charcoal-fired grill and a big fork and got busy.
Our dad loved it. Even at 9 or 10, however, we could never quite see the point. It was like driving your busted car to the mechanic, only to have him assign you a pair of coveralls, a creeper and a set of wrenches once you got there. Why not leave it to the professionals?
We might have to change our thinking about that however, now that we've been to Genghis Grill, the new Mongolian grill restaurant in West Little Rock. Very fresh, very fun and with a menu that is pretty much infinitely customizable, it might be this reviewer's new favorite in town when it comes to fast-casual dining.
Though the process at Genghis Grill might make you a bit nervous at first, you'll get in the swing of things fairly quick. After you order your drinks, you'll be assigned a silver bowl about as big as a hat ($8.99 per person at lunch, $9.99 at dinner; $2 more for all you can eat at lunch, $3 more at dinner). After a short instruction period from the waiter or waitress, you go through a buffet-style line full of fresh ingredients, sauces and spices and fill your bowl.
First up are the meats, and they've got a lot: raw chicken, turkey, steak, pork, shrimp, sausage, ham, calamari, crab (it's actually krab — the fake stuff), even tofu. Next, you season your meal, with the spices spooned from bowls containing everything from plain old salt and pepper to something called “Dragon Salt” that felt like swallowing hot embers. Next up are the vegetables — onions, peppers, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, water chestnuts, mushrooms, jalapenos and lots of others. Last, in a separate bowl (it'll scorch if they don't put it on right at the end of cooking, our waiter said) are the sauces: 10 or 12 different varieties, representing pretty much all the colors and flavors of the Asian cuisine rainbow.
By the time you get done, you should have your bowl fairly mounded over with raw stuff. To finish up, they ask you which starch you'd like: a side of fried rice, brown rice, white rice, tortillas, Udon noodles or others. Then they dump your selections on a round grill as big as a flying saucer and cook it, stirring with long sticks. They'll even let you stand there and watch them do it, so you can see your food through from ingredients to finished dish.
On our first trip to the bar, we followed our gut (literally) and went with beefsteak, seasoned generously with salt, black pepper and garlic powder. For veggies, we heaped on the “Mongo Mix” — diced onions and red/yellow/green bell peppers. At the sauce bar (you can try the sauces with tiny disposable spoons if you like) we got a big dip of the Mongo Barbecue Sauce, which the posters on the wall said was mildly spicy. For a starch, we finished off with the fried rice.
As we suspected, you pretty much can't go wrong with stir-fried steak with onions and peppers. Our order came amazingly fast from the grill and was literally too hot to eat when it got to our table. Though we had been worried that the bowl we'd filled had been too skimpy, the side of fried rice was easily as big as what we had snagged from the bar, and made the perfect accompaniment. Very, very tasty.
On our second trip to the bar (yes, we made a pig of ourselves, but with only $2 separating the “single bowl” from the “bottomless bowl” at lunch, we couldn't pass up another run at the goodies), we tried following one of Genghis Grill's helpful recipe cards, which are available at the entrance to the buffet line. Always a fan of citrus-y Asian food, we went with the Citrus Beef: steak, citrus garlic herbs, classic stir fry mix, Mongo Mix, ginger citrus sauce and Udon noodles.
The result was fabulous, even though we were just about to pop by then from our first bowl (if you go, you'll marvel at our gastronomic abilities, given the size of the first portion you get) — tangy, sweet, hot, and fine. Our only wish was that we'd hit it up with a little more cayenne for a bit of kick. Maybe next visit.
In short, get to Genghis Grill soon. It can be a bit pricey for lunch, depending on what you order to drink, but if you're in the mood for really good Asian food, it's worth it. Kids will love it for the fun, picky eaters will adore it for the freshness and variety, and hearty scarfers like this reviewer will think they've died and gone to heaven. Check it out.
12318 Chenal Parkway
A friend who visited with us isn't into sauces and spices and such, so he just heaped his bowl with fresh peeled shrimp, some butter, a couple of lemon wedges, all sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. Paired with Udon noodles, it made for a very tasty dish. Like we said: the menu is infinitely customizable, and will surely bring out the closet chef in anyone.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Full bar. Credit cards.