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Man Responsible for Bringing Mongolian Barbecue to America Has Died

John C. Lee founded Colonel Lee’s Mongolian BBQ

BBQ 4100
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

The founder of the chain Colonel Lee’s Mongolian BBQ has died. Many credit John C. Lee as the first to introduce Mongolian barbecue to Los Angeles, and the U.S. in the late 1960s. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that Lee was 95-years-old, and passed away from natural causes in Encino on January 2.

Originally from northeast China, Lee was actually a colonel in Taiwan’s Republic of China army, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1966. Lee planned to open a chain of Mongolian barbecue restaurants, and opened the first Colonel Lee’s Mongolian BBQ in Northridge in 1969. The franchise expanded throughout Los Angeles and California, becoming a popular destination for Americans in search of a new cuisine.

Lee created the following format for Colonel Lee’s: choose ingredients from an all-you-can-eat buffet line, hand it over to the cooks for a customized Mongolian barbecue experience. And though all of Colonel franchise locations are closed, Lee launched a number of businesses, including the design and manufacture of Mongolian barbecue grills. Lee also started Colonel Lee’s Enterprises, which is now T&T Foods, which mass-produces egg rolls, dumplings and sauces. Lee sold Colonel Lee’s Enterprises and retired the brand in 1989. Lee and his wife also founded an organization that offers educational scholarships for students from Lee’s home province to study in the U.S.

To get a sense of Mongolian barbecue’s popularity, head to Google and look at the numerous red dots of Mongolian barbecue restaurants in Los Angeles. Many locals still fondly recall Colonel Lee’s Mongolian BBQ’s particularly large Encino location. Lee’s son James spoke of his father’s impact in the Los Angeles Daily News, “There had been efforts to bring Mongolian barbecue to the U.S., but no one was ever able to franchise or mass market on a broad scale.” Lee is survived by his wife Nancy, sons James and Edward, and granddaughters Jezell and Katrine.