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Menu Please: Kahuna’s Mongolian BBQ Livens Up Downtown Redding Dining

The term “Mongolian barbecue” was first used by Chinese actor Wu Jau-nan when he opened a restaurant in Taipei in 1951. In “Unmentionable Cuisine,” the late Calvin Schwabe described Mongolian barbecue as being Taiwanese and similar to certain cookery from Korea (bul-gogi) and Japan (teppanyaki and jingisukan).  The “legend” about Genghis Khan’s soldiers cooking their meals on their shields or helmets are amusing, but Femme de Joie finds it unlikely that entire armies would be sent out on lengthy campaigns with no thought to who was going to feed all those men and instead decide that they should just rustle up some grub on their own.

The building at 2151 Market Street in Redding has been a Bermuda Triangle of bars and restaurants, some good (River City Bar & Grill), some bad (a bar M. de Joie visited long ago to hear an astonishingly loud and spectacularly awful band; she has forgotten both the name of the bar and the band), and the neither here nor there (Zippers, Rainbow Lounge, Eddy’s Grill, et al). To stretch a metaphor beyond all reason, businesses in that spot became a Flying Dutchman of doom.  Femme de Joie thinks this may be because the location is apparently invisible; when she tries to describe it to someone (“South of Jiffy Lube. Kind of across from Mallory’s Florist”), the response is invariably furrowed brows and puzzled expressions.

Succeeding where its predecessors have failed is Kahuna’s Mongolian BBQ. Though kahuna is a Hawaiian word and Mongolian is, well, Mongolian,  the name seems appropriate for a Pan-Asian restaurant concept. It’s been packing them in for over a year and is one of the few downtown restaurants open every day for both lunch and dinner.

The interior has a tiki-bar kind of feel with a lot of fake orchids and wood paneling. When a customer is seated, waitstaff asks if they have ever been there before. If this is the first visit, the procedure is explained and your order for white or brown rice is taken.  Ramps and steps lead customers down to salad bar tables filled with a selection of thinly sliced meats, raw shrimp, parboiled noodles, vegetables, tofu, and eggs.

 

 

Diners fill a bowl with their choice of ingredients and then move to a sauce bar, where they choose as many sauces as they like (Thai chili sauce, beer, garlic oil, teriyaki ,and so forth) to ladle over the filled bowls. Just to the left of the sauce bar is a shelf with shakers of seasonings (thyme, chipotle, sesame oil, lime juice, etc.).  Moving to the left is an open window to the grill itself, a small selection of last-minute additions (peanuts, coconut, sesame seeds) to toss onto the now-brimming bowl before handing off the food to one of the cooks.

The cooks do a sort of ballet around the grill, maneuvering the food with a long pair of “swords.” When it’s cooked, the food is slid off the grill into a fresh bowl and handed back to the diner.

There is a certain sameness to what all the food looks like when it’s come off the grill, a sort of swirly brownness. The end result is really up to the diner and their wise (or not) choice of ingredients and sauces. It might be tempting, for instance, to load the bowl entirely with shrimp, and some people probably do that, but it’s more fun and interesting to combine a variety of vegetables and meat with different sauces. In theory you could eat at Kahuna several times a week and never have the same flavors, textures, or ingredients repeated.

Since Asian food is chockablock with allergens – soy, peanuts, gluten – a sign says that if you tell the cooks about your sensitivity they will clean the grill before cooking your food. Femme de Joie did not witness this happening on her visits so she cannot say exactly how they clean the grill – whether that means only scraping the top of all detritus or actually scrubbing the surface to remove trace amounts. This may seem frivolous to non-allergy sufferers, but a person with a peanut allergy could die if they ate a meal cooked on the same grill that previously had peanuts on it – so ask, ask, ask.

But there are a couple of things newbie diners ought to be aware of. From Kahuna’s website:

So if Femme de Joie understand this correctly: you may buy dinner for $14.99, for which you are entitled to two trips through the buffet line. If you do not finish your second bowl of food – which you own, since the understood contract between a diner and a restaurant is that the customer pays for their food – you cannot keep it. The restaurant will throw your food away. Bad customer!  At lunch, it turns out, you get one trip through the buffet line BUT (what the website does not tell you) is that if you want shrimp or lamb (which are included on the dinner buffet), that is $3.00 extra – making the lunch buffet cost as much as dinner, but you get half as much.

Femme de Joie must be missing something here. Such a policy can only result in arguments between customers and waitstaff, who will suffer the brunt of righteous anger, and waste of perfectly good food. However, the website does not say that a customer cannot place the leftover food in their own to-go box (which are available in bulk at Cash and Carry) or a piece of aluminum foil, thoughtfully folded and tucked into a pocket before entering the restaurant.  And really: $12.99 for a five-year-old’s dinner? If management is afraid of grifter children and seniors defrauding them left and right, perhaps a look at “small” meal option is in order.

Other than that, Femme de Joie likes Kahuna’s. It’s rather fun, you know exactly what you’re getting, and staff is friendly and helpful (though they do tend to disappear after they’ve delivered your drink and rice). It does get crowded with long lines, so visiting before or after peak dining hours is suggested.

Kahuna’s Mongolian BBQ, 2151 Market Street, Redding, CA 96001. 530-244-4200. Open daily, 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Cash and cards. Beer, wine, low-alcohol cocktails. Vegan and vegetarian options. Gluten-free and other special diets accommodated (but ask about how the grill is cleaned). Parking lot. Outdoor seating available. Website at http://kahunasmongolianbbq.com/

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