Bear Bites: MP Mongolian BBQ

4 mins read

When I walked into Menlo Park Mongolian BBQ, I was immediately immersed in the vibrant sounds and fragrant scents of the grill as a chef whipped up a customer’s meal in minutes. The restaurant is located on El Camino Real in Downtown Menlo Park, wedged between the CVS and BevMo. It serves Mongolian barbeque, which is customized and cooked on the griddle in the front of the restaurant, as well as a-la-carte menu options. While it may be easy to miss at first glance, the distinctive scents of Mongolian barbeque draw customers in.

Manager Paul Brannan said, “People are coming back [after the pandemic] and they’re happy to be here. A lot of new first-time customers just come in because of the smell.” 

Jenny Ma owns and runs the restaurant with the help of her family and Brannon. Ma also owns and runs the Menlo Park location’s sister restaurant, Su’s Mongolian BBQ, in Santa Clara. 

Ma and her family immigrated from China in 1984 to escape political oppression. Before, they were all doctors, but when they came to America they could not practice medicine without going back to school. So, her parents began working at an eldercare facility for a couple years before deciding to enter the food business. In 1990, they started working at Colonel Lee Mongolian BBQ, one of their relative’s restaurants on Castro Street in Mountain View. The restaurant’s simple style and delicious cuisine inspired Ma and her family to open their first restaurant in Santa Clara a few years later.

Soon after, in June 2012, Ma opened the Menlo Park Mongolian BBQ. Brannon said, “Jenny and her husband had been working on the restaurant together,” but he passed away only a month before the opening.

The restaurant has remained strong throughout all of its hardships, in large part because of the community. Brannon said, “Locals have been so wonderful.”

However, the restaurant still hasn’t completely recovered from the pandemic. “Even with the increase in business in the last year, we’re still at less than 60% of a pre-COVID volume of customers,” Brannon said. He continued, “When we opened back up, even though it was just for takeout, our regular customers would pay extra or would come by and hand money through the door just to keep us in business.” According to Ma and Brannon, it was the locals and the Menlo Park community that kept the restaurant alive, both during COVID and before the pandemic.

Mongolian BBQ is also loved by the Menlo Park Police Department. Ma recalled, “One time, there were 21 motorcycles lined up outside. They were all coming together to eat at the same time, and the customers were like, ‘What is going on?’ And we just said that the officers were people too and needed to eat.” 

Brannon added, “We still have police coming from the surrounding cities, but they have told us that they don’t come in as often because they are spreading their money around, going to all the mom-and-pop restaurants trying to keep everybody in business.”

Uniquely, there is a bed in the back of the restaurant that the staff uses for a very special purpose––naps. Brannon said, “We’re closed between two and five, so part of that time is used to prepare food for dinner or shop, but sometimes you just need a nap. In fact, when we were fully staffed before COVID, it was not unusual to see a couple of bodies just lying on the couches over there. Just resting, because they’d been working all morning and lunch, and they knew they’d be working till 10:00 that night—sometimes even till midnight. So those naps were really handy.”

Ma’s father, who passed away this year, created all of the sauce recipes, as well as those for the homemade soups that were offered pre-COVID. At night, Ma and Wang would roll homemade egg rolls together in the back of the restaurant.

At Mongolian BBQ, you can create your own dish with the ingredients provided. However, there is also a variety of made-to-order foods that many customers are unaware of.

Brannon said, “Before COVID, that whole buffet table that’s got drinks in it now was full of fried rice, egg rolls, and wonderful sesame biscuits—all handmade here. But, during COVID, buffets disappeared, so we couldn’t have the warm food just sitting out. However, those restrictions have long since been gone, so the reason that we don’t have it now is because we don’t have enough employees to keep it restocked with what’s needed. Right now, egg rolls are 75 cents each and fried rice is $5.99 for a plate that’ll feed three.” 

These homemade egg rolls, which I was lucky enough to try, are prepared fresh and made-to-order.

Additionally, Menlo Park Mongolian BBQ changed their “all you can eat” policy. Brannon said, “Starting a little less than a year ago, the amount of waste skyrocketed. People would go for the last trip and would leave a full bowl on the table, not even touch it. They either didn’t realize they were already full, or had never intended to eat it in the first place. So, our policy now is two bowls, and if you still have an appetite, two trips.”

For my bowl, I combined noodles, pork, lamb, cabbage, broccoli, onion, carrot, celery, bean sprout, and jalapeño. I also experimented and made my own sauce, which consisted of garlic, fish sauce, hot oil, and soy sauce. My mom used the same ingredients along with mushrooms, spinach, pineapple, and cilantro to make her bowl; for her sauce, she used the official Mongolian barbeque sauce recipe. Both of us enjoyed our meals immensely and would also highly recommend trying new things at Mongolian BBQ Menlo Park because there are just so many options.

Paul Brannon had three main pieces of advice for newcomers:

  1. “Don’t get it if you’re not going to eat it.”
  2. “You can take a third trip, but it’s an additional $10.”
  3. “Go easy on the noodles because they’re delicious but they’re filling.”

Menlo Park Mongolian BBQ is more than just a restaurant; it encompasses a story of resilience and community.

Natalie is a senior in her third year of Journalism and an Editor-in-Chief of the M-A Chronicle. She is passionate about issues affecting M-A and hopes her stories reflect underrepresented voices in the community; she also loves writing music and food reviews. Outside of school, she enjoys singing opera, performing in choir, and going on hikes with her dogs.

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