This is a bowl of chicken, water chestnuts, green beans, tomatoes,… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
Before walking into BangBang Mongolian Grill, take a deep breath. It might be your last chance to relax until dinner is over.
The new addition to the Can Company in Canton, which opened in February, promotes its healthy, do-it-yourself meals with exclamations like "An Explosion of Flavors Await!" and, splashed across a bright red wall, "BRING IT!"
Fans of Tony Horton's P90X videos will chuckle — the energetic fitness guru uses "Bring it!" as his catch phrase. That's appropriate because BangBang's shares the same manic energy that Horton exudes in front of the camera.
Those excited proclamations are fair. BangBang's food is flavorful and, according to the company's website, it's fairly healthful. But these days, meals balancing tasty with healthful typically come with a "made locally" stamp of approval. With sauces made out of town and no head chef in sight, BangBang seems more like fast food than whole food.
Based in Iowa, the BangBang franchise has East Coast locations in the Can Company and Bowie. The primary owner of both Maryland outposts, Union Memorial Hospital surgeon Dr. Shawn Dillon, was drawn to BangBang's health-conscious angle. That the food also tastes pretty good is a bonus.
Around 7 on a recent Thursday night, BangBang was sparsely populated. Over the next hour, it filled up with young families, post-gym diners still in workout gear, and a smattering of Cantonites dressed for a night out.
When we arrived, the genial man behind the cash register explained that the restaurant operates cafeteria-style. Step 1: Choose, and pay for, your beverage and bowl size (kids, $4.99; regular, $10.99; or "Big Bang," $13.99). Step 2: Fill up the bowl with any combination of meat, seafood and veggies, and top with one or more sauces. Step 3: Stand back and watch your meal cooked on a large grill. Step 4: Dig in.
On our helper's recommendation, we opted for the Big Bang bowl. "It's better for people their first time. More 'bang' for your buck," he said. (He was right — the smaller bowl would have left us hungry). He sent us on our way with brochures outlining BangBang Mongolian's 10 "signature bowls," ranging from Fiery Fiesta to Teriyaki Chicken. These signature dishes are suggestions, he explained. Starting points.
After finding a table and parking our drinks — a Fat Tire Amber Ale ($4.25) and a glass of Excelsior chardonnay ($4.99) — we grabbed our bowls and headed to the short line, accidentally leaving the signature bowl brochure on the table. That's when the terror took hold.
BangBang's bar of ingredients curves around the back of the restaurant and seems to stretch forever. Proteins come first, followed by vegetables, spices and sauces. Each section includes more choices than our brains could effectively process. After moving halfway down the line, and discovering new ingredients along the way, we started to regret our earlier decisions. At that point, though, there was no turning back.
For all of the sign scattered throughout BangBang — and there are a lot, mostly focusing on nutritional stats — there's precious little instruction giving advance notice of what ingredients are available. A simple list of options, posted at the beginning of the line or even printed as a handout, would've been helpful.
Confusion aside, BangBang's ingredients were neatly presented, proteins were fresh and vegetables were crisp. Staff behind the bar hustled to keep the constant stream of customers from making a mess and helpfully answered questions about the process.
After watching our food cook on the grill (and leaving a gratuity for the cooks via the tip jar), we headed back to the dining area, discovering that another couple had nabbed our table — and our drinks. The mix-up was a simple one — we'd ordered the same drinks, so our tables looked the same — and was quickly resolved, but it added to our overall disorientation.
Once settled in, we found that our drink choices were good ones and that our dinners were tasty. The sauces lacked subtlety, but they were, as promised, exploding with flavor.
Our first bowl was a mixture of shrimp, tiny scallops, calamari, thinly sliced bell peppers, onions and fresh spinach, seasoned with garlic powder and ginger, tossed with a mixture of sweet-and-sour and soy sauces and served with fried rice. The soy cut the intensity of the sweet-and-sour sauce and the seasoning was a good match for the properly cooked seafood.
The other bowl, a combination of shaved beef, pork, sugar snap peas, cabbage, onion, cilantro and egg over pad Thai noodles, was savory and spicy, thanks to BangBang's powerful kung pao sauce. Don't skip the egg: It added a necessary dimension of flavor and texture.