Thursday, November 19, 2009

Opening Night at Gobi Mongolian BBQ in Silverlake

Let me be perfectly clear: Mongolian barbeque is awesome. Not since Orange Julius has there been such a welcome addition to mall food courts across our great land. That’s why I was thrilled when I was invited to the opening night party at Gobi, Silverlake’s new Mongolian barbeque restaurant. But wait. I’ve driven past Gobi for months and seen that it was open, so why throw an opening night event now? Perhaps because they realize they’re going to need as much help as they can get.
Arriving at the party, attendees were greeted by a line that wrapped around the building and flowed deep into the adjacent parking lot. In an effort to keep cranky waiting patrons happy, small plates and little cups of beer were passed along as dozens huddled in the unusually crisp L.A. air. It turns out the delivery service outside was far superior to the melee inside. Gobi is small. Very small. With room for only about a dozen small wooden tables, there was barely a spare inch to move, let alone breathe, which might have been one of the hidden blessings about hardly being able to get any food.

Upon entering the party, I saw and smelled small plates of pesto-tossed noodles and meat. It looked tantalizing. I’d love to tell you what it tasted like but it seemed to be a momentary apparition because it never appeared again. While waiting and praying for food to appear, there was a bar armed with beer and watered down soju cocktails to keep the hordes at bay. The Ginger Blossom, made with soju, ginger, lemon-lime soda and lime juice, was both refreshing and delicious despite being made with the one liquor guaranteed to give you an instant hangover. Finally, through some jostling, cajoling and a moment of intense begging, I was finally able to secure two small portions of what I was told was the “Traditional” plate which appeared to contain noodles, beef, chicken, mushrooms and broccoli, though nothing seemed to account for the slight but puzzling flavor of goat cheese.
If you’ve never had Mongolian barbeque before, here’s how it works: You’re given a bowl and your choice of frozen, thinly shaved meat, sliced vegetables and several sauces. While most Americanized Mongolian BBQ joints offer simply mild or spicy, Gobi’s big brain moment is that they have more unique, though occasionally unappetizing sounding, sauces on tap. Choices include lemongrass, the aforementioned phantom “Asian pesto,” lemon mint, green curry, smoked oyster and BBQ. Next, Sizzler salad bar style, you cram as much as you can into your bowl, hand it to a technician who throws noodles on top and then cooks the whole thing on a massive circular iron griddle with impossibly long chopsticks. Like I said, it’s awesome. But Gobi, despite having been soft-opened since July 14th and owned by frozen confection genius Michael Buch, the man behind Pazzo Gelato, and his girlfriend, Christina Rivera, has a lot working against it.

The first problem is how DIY everything feels. Sure, when you go to Mongolian BBQ or Korean BBQ, part of the fun is doing it yourself, but that’s not the issue with Gobi. While Gobi’s commitment to all-natural chicken, pork and lamb, and seasonal, local produce is commendable, their execution is surprisingly lacking. With four months to have worked out the kinks, there’s no reason why their food should taste like the Trader Joe’s Kung Pao noodles that come in a box and can be purchased for $1.99. The décor also feels unintentionally simple, as if someone decided to start a craft project, got some stencils and made a pretty cherry blossom tree. If everything Gobi offers can be done at home, why, especially in this recession, do they deserve $13.95, without drinks or a tip? Adding to the “Why bother?” conundrum, Gobi sits just down the block from Rambutan Thai and the venerable Pho Café on Sunset Boulevard. If you need an Asian noodle fix, there are plenty of other, tastier avenues to travel down within yards.

Back at the party, I finally snagged a plate of the curry noodles, which, disappointingly, were identical to the traditional noodles except that they’d been doused in spicy curry powder which left a gritty texture and overwhelming back-of-the-throat kick of spiciness. Yet another Gobi fail. Disheartened and unsatisfied, I struck out into the L.A. night, leaving behind throngs of people battling over the few, tasteless noodles to be found, though not greatly enjoyed. I headed to Pazzo Gelato instead. It was delicious.

Gobi Mongolian BBQ
2827 W. Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 989-0711

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