Mongolian barbecue as we know it in the U.S. is a myth. The theatrical wok-seared cooking style may pull threads from Genghis Khan’s conquest-fueled meals, but the cooking and service model actually only dates to the 1950s, rather than the 13th century, when misguided Taipei restaurateurs championed mix-and-match “Mongolian BBQ” as a new genre of dining. The sizzling buffet enjoys relative popularity, especially in suburban mall food courts, while the real foods of Mongolia have much lower national representation. Thankfully there’s a South Bay spot in Los Angeles that serves traditional Mongolian fare: Nadima’s Sushi & Mongolian Express, a Torrance newcomer from a Mongolian couple that opened in spring 2019.
Co-owner Gantuya Davaa provides a disclaimer when serving Mongolian dishes to non-Mongolians, saying, “We don’t use many spices. Don’t expect too much flavor.” Despite the humble assessment of her country’s cuisine, banshtai havirgatai shol ($14.99) is a soulful soup featuring juicy lamb ribs bobbing in lamb broth with potatoes, carrots, onions, scallions, and sturdy dumplings filled with ground beef, cabbage, and onion called buuz. The restaurant’s online description reads: “Mongolian people specialize in farming and because of the cold weather, we enjoy a lot of meats.” Animal protein is certainly front and center in this fortifying bowl, which girds diners for LA’s sometimes chillier-than-expected winters.
Gantuya Davaa is originally from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and her husband, a fellow Mongolian named Chinbat, is a trained sushi chef. The couple named the restaurant for their son and originally focused on sushi, given the food’s popularity, bolder flavors, and relative ease to produce. However, they soon added traditional Mongolian dishes, opting not to make Mongolian barbecue, which Davaa calls the “California roll” of Mongolian cuisine. “Even [though] we have few Mongolians, only first generations in America, I am trying to introduce my culture to our community and serve for Mongolians,” she says. So far, sushi accounts for about 70 percent of sales, and Mongolian fare 30 percent, though her country’s food is trending upward.
Finding Nadima’s Sushi & Mongolian Express is a far bigger challenge than eating its comfort food. If anything, it’s easier to find the restaurant on foot, since spotting the signs while cruising Torrance’s busy Hawthorne Boulevard can prove difficult. Just scan between Subway and El Torito for a neon sign that reads “SUSHI COFFEE TEA.” It’s only after entering the tiny rounded space with tan walls and a chalk-scrawled blackboard that Mongolian menu items even reveal themselves.
Tsuivan ($11.99) is another must-order dish featuring shaved handmade noodle strands stir-fried with beef shavings, onions, carrots, and potatoes. Again, the flavor is subtle, but the noodle boasts a remarkable texture. To boost flavor, primarily for non-Mongolians, Davaa provides ketchup, a common condiment in Mongolia, since it’s mild. She also has spicier Sriracha that’s geared toward LA customers.
To connect with people unfamiliar with Mongolian cuisine, the couple lists khuushuur ($8.99 for three) as “Mongolian tacos” on the menu, though the description is a misnomer. These fluffy deep-fried hand pies are filled with either beef and onions or potatoes, made according to a recipe from Grandma Jomboon, Davaa’s grandmother on her mother’s side. Each plate comes with tangy cabbage and carrot “Mongolian coleslaw” called baitsaanii salat.
Nadima’s piecemeal Mongolian menu also includes a Mongolian fried rice called budaatai khuurga, dumpling and milk tea soup called banshtai suutei tsai, and beef noodle soup called guriltai shol made with another beloved Grandma Jomboon recipe.
Most people associate “Mongolian” food with customizable stir-fries that combine assorted noodles, proteins, vegetables, and sauces plucked from stainless-steel bins and cooked on massive grills. Customers pay by the bowl or line up repeatedly for all-you-can-eat feasts. Nadima’s Sushi & Mongolian Express is not that place. This is traditional Mongolian food, the kind found in only one other local LA restaurant: Golden Mongolian Restaurant near Koreatown. Nadima’s commands attention, and not just because it’s a rare cultural representative from a very particular region, but also because the food is so hearty and unpretentious.
The restaurant’s Mongolian food is a great reason to drive to Torrance, and sharing culture is certainly a goal for the couple, but son Nadima is their driving force. He’s currently 11 years old and wears bilateral cochlear implants that allow him to listen and talk. In order to help support other deaf children who are facing multifaceted challenges to “acquire skills that help them succeed in life,” the restaurant donates 1 percent of profits to local nonprofit organization No Limits for Deaf Children. Nadima’s Sushi & Mongolian Express may be tiny, but the family-run restaurant manages to contribute quite a bit to the community.
Nadima’s Sushi & Mongolian Express is open at 9 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m. most nights. Check hours here before visiting.