BEFORE I DIVE INTO THE CULINARY SPLENDORS OF GENGHIS KHAN MONGOLIAN GRILL, which has been open now for almost 20 years just south of 39th Street on Belle Street, I need to start with a disclaimer. I love this restaurant and not just for the well-curated ingredients on the buffet or the ginger water or the sleek urban vibe that can build to a crescendo on Saturday night or the portrait of Stephen Hawking that watches over guests who jockey for position around the restaurant’s signature 700 degree cast-iron griddle.
Not long after we got married, my wife was diagnosed with a rare and very acute blood disease that landed her in the intensive care unit at KU Med Center. For a while things didn’t look good for her. At nights I stalked the empty halls of the top floor of the main hospital or hiked back and forth on 39th Street when I needed to get some air or food. One night I walked into Genghis Kahn for the first time. I ate my dinner at the bar and plunged into more detail than I’d planned about what had been going on with my wife and her condition for the last couple weeks. When it was time to pay and head back to the hospital, I looked at the check and restaurant – either the barkeep or manager Nga Huynh who you can still find at the restaurant most days – had picked up the tab. I’ve never forgotten that kind gesture. My wife eventually made a full recovery and we’ve been loyal customers ever since.
Back to the food. Most people come to Genghis Kahn for the Mongolian grill, an all-you-care-to-eat buffet of vegetables, meats, seafood, and sauces that you select to create your dish. Despite the name, the Mongolian grill tradition is really Taiwanese in origin. Taiwanese, Malaysian, and Singaporean “fusion” cuisines are incredibly popular in California and other parts of the US but aren’t as common in the Midwest (with the recent exception of bubble tea), but the restaurant definitely has a fusion flair to some of the menu items. The Genghis buffet is hands-down the best of its kind in Kansas City. I’ve noticed that some of the more suburban incarnations have an almost parental oversight of your “experience,” where servers guide you through options, explain how to choose sauces depending on your spice tolerance, or even disallow certain food combinations for reasons I’ve never fully understood. There’s pomp and flair at the Genghis Kahn buffet as well, but you don’t need a guide dog to enjoy it; the experience speaks for itself. The curation happens before you ever get to the restaurant.
Ingredients on the buffet include fat black beans and pinto beans, crispy tofu, the usual thin slightly-frozen chicken and beef, calamari and shrimp, and a plethora of sauces and “waters” (like my favorites ginger and garlic water). A couple sauce combo recipes are taped to the last station in the line if you need inspiration, but otherwise you’re on your own. (I always use the same mix: five ladles of ginger water, two ladles of garlic water, and a dollop of sesame oil – try going lower sodium than that at a restaurant). The buffet includes seasonal fruit (how they manage to find decent watermelon even in the middle of winter has always impressed me), small dessert squares, a killer hot and sour soup (which you might have to ask for) and their legendary sesame bread – a thin baked concoction of sesame seeds, brown sugar, and white flour.
Venturing back onto the menu, some good IndieFit choices include:
- For vegans: Tofu Mushroom Pot ( $13)
- For vegetarians: Crispy Portabella and Avocado Mango Salad ($13)
- For Paleo folks: I can’t say enough about the Pacific Cod in clear ginger, scallion, and cilantro soy sauce. The infusion of steamed ginger is wonderful ($14)
- Gluten-free: Here you should ask the wait staff to be safe or choose the buffet.
I suspect that someday aging Gen Xers might haul their grandkids to 39th Street’s restaurant row, much like their own grandmothers hauled them to the bygone Putsch’s Cafeteria institution that fed generations of blue-haired grannies and their broods on Sunday afternoons of the past. Until then, I’ll keep coming back to Genghis Kahn on Saturday afternoons for the little blue bowls of veggies, the ginger water, and the memories of a compassionate gesture many buffet visits past.
GENGHIS KAHN MONGOLIAN GRILL
3906 Bell St, Kansas City, MO 64111 | (816) 753-3600
M-T 11:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. | Friday 11:00 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. | Saturday 12:00 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. | Closed Sunday