I feel a little bad about how much I like Flat Top Grill, the latest outpost of the upper-Midwest Mongolian barbecue chain that’s moved into the newly swank Hilldale Mall (which, according to the Flat Top website, is actually an “open air shopping and lifestyle center.”) If you haven’t been to a Mongolian barbecue, you should think of it as a big salad bar, where instead of lettuce there’s various chopped vegetables, instead of dressing there are Asian-themed sauces, and instead of croutons there’s raw meat. You pile all this stuff in a bowl, in whatever combination pleases you, and hand it to the stirfry man who cooks it all up for you. For nine bucks (at lunchtime — dinner’s more expensive) you can get as many bowls as you want.
So why do I like this? I think it’s because it reminds me of the lunch buffets in the Chinese restaurants of my youth, which were extremely appealing in principle — but the actual encounter with the beef lo mein that had been tanning on the steam table since 11:30 was always dispiriting. Nothing is sadder than realizing that “all you can eat” exceeds “all you wish to eat.”
Let’s be honest, I’m thinking about a specific restaurant in Baltimore, where for six dollars you got unlimited access to a voluminous pan-Asian buffet, including sushi. After the sushi had been out there for a half hour or so, you’d start to steer clear of it. And about a half hour after that, it would disappear, and five minutes after that, a plate of deep-fried tempura sushi would come out, suspiciously similar in size and composition to what was recently removed.
Anyway, Flat Top is the same idea: cheap, routine Chinese-style food, many kinds, all you can eat — but each dish is freshly cooked. Big difference.
The one thing I don’t like about Flat Top is the big open dishes of raw meat you scoop into your bowl, which makes you feel you have to trust all the other customers not to salmonellaize every handle and surface in the place. How do people not get food poisoning here all the time? I was actually curious about this, so I asked the maitre d’, who told me “they wipe everything down a lot” but this answer lacked the passion and commitment I was hoping for. Anyway, looking at the yelp reviews, it seems the answer is that people do get food poisoning from time to time. Won’t keep me away.
Flat Top Grill: 538 N. Midvale Blvd. (Hilldale Mall) 236-0500
Hours: 11 am-9 pm Sun., 11 am-10 pm Mon.-Thurs., 11 am-11 pm Fri.-Sat.