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Mongolian Blast

Su's Mongolian BBQ
Christopher Gardner

BBQ Guru: Wei Na Tian cooks up fresh veggies and meats at Santa Clara's Su's Mongolian BBQ.

Forget the frills--dessert is a fortune cookie--but the affordable sizzle is hard to beat at Su's Mongolian BBQ, a Santa Clara hot spot

By Christina Waters

IT'S NOT HARD to find Su's Mongolian BBQ. Just follow the crowd parking up and down El Camino--right across from Santa Clara U.--and streaming through the front door of this stupendously popular "all you can eat" establishment. A sign on the door informs that lunch runs $5.55, while dinner prices balloon all the way up to $6.99.

Once inside, Su's owns you. Draped with sparkly stuff for the holidays, Su's is essentially a gigantic ode to Formica. What passes for decor here is confined to a few framed posters of Yosemite waterfalls and a red Chinese wall calendar as thick as a dictionary.

Candice and I were pointed toward no table in particular, so we herded ourselves between one wall of students and another of blue-collar workers and families, a group liberally sprinkled with high-tech types wearing beepers. Gazing at the steam tables, we asked for instruction.

Understand that there is no menu, no specials listings on the wall--no writing of any kind, save for a bright blue "Occupancy limit--49" sign--nothing to indicate our role in this surreal but aromatic collective drama. Nobody else looked lost--they were obviously repeat offenders. We were told simply to go up front and get our food. This stunningly vague information prompted me to quickly order a Tsing Tao ($2.70) to accompany whatever was coming next.

Finding ourselves in front of a huge pot of rice, a few trays of noodles and some chicken with potatoes, we were perplexed. Where was the BBQ? Why were people holding bowls all moving behind the steam tables? Was this all an X-Files flashback? I found a guy with a beeper and laid my cards on the table. "How does this work?" I pleaded.

Candice just kept staring at her fried egg roll and chicken. The nice man told me that what happens here is, patrons fill a bowl with desired raw ingredients to be grilled, choosing from the other glass display case filled with attractive fresh broccoli, onions, scallions and carrots next to a case packed with flash-frozen, paper-thin slices of chicken, pork, beef and lamb.

Okay, now we're talkin'. We ran back to our table, dropped off our first plates with rice and chicken--plus Candice's lone egg roll--and dashed back to the bowls, proceeding to pile them with our choice of ingredients. Thus armed, we snaked our way toward the back, past a lineup of sauces and oils filled with tart, tangy and downright fiery ingredients, like a molten chile paste, soy sauce, garlic sauce and oil, which we splashed on our ingredients. A minute later, we put our bowls on the counter and watched the show.

Here was the heart and soul of Su's Mongolian BBQ--a young culinary priest turning and flipping and finessing the loose ends of the orders in front of us, all sizzling madly on what looked like a gigantic steel drum--actually the BBQ heat source--powered from inside. Deftly scraping away the traces of previous orders, he applied our bowlfuls of stuff to the grill, where they jumped up a few inches into the air from sheer thermal conjunction. So hot is this BBQ "griddle" that in the time it took Candice to tell me she had a new boyfriend, our orders were ready, steaming hot, deftly cooked--whatever the Mongolian equivalent of al dente is--and as fresh as hell.

No wonder the prices are low. The patron selects ingredients, brings them to the fire and then walks the meal to the table. The whole adventure was fun. We happily fed the tips jar in front our BBQ guru, splashed on some garlic powder and more chile oil and headed back to the table.

The flavors were great--especially when the crisp broccoli and the assertive garlic and chile flavors began to blend together with the rice in the bottom of the bowl.

Vegetarians can create their meal strictly of cabbage, onions, broccoli, mung sprouts and carrots, and carnivores can go whole hog with their meaty creations. And it's not like you don't know what you're eating--you put it there!

You think I'm making this up? Su me!

Su's Mongolian BBQ

Ambiance: Not really, but it's friendly and bustling
Price: Unbelievably low
Hours: Lunch Mon.­Sat., 11:30am­2pm; dinner daily, 5­9pm
Service: Excellent beer and soft drink delivery
Address: 1111 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
Phone: 408/985-2958

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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