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Mongolian barbecue with noodles, veggies, and meat in a blue-rimmed plate.
A plate of Mongolian barbecue with noodles, veggies, and meat.

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Big Wok Is the Last Great Mongolian Barbecue Buffet Left in Los Angeles

Nothing satisfies the warrior’s appetite quite like all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue

Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

In an inflationary world, there are few things more comforting than all-you-can-eat dining at a modest price. Growing up, the salad bar of Sizzler was our family’s go-to for nonstop appetizers of spaghetti and marinara or crunchy tacos with a side of limp iceberg lettuce. It wasn’t until earlier this year that some dining enthusiast friends introduced a novel concept (at least to me): all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue at Big Wok in Manhattan Beach. Familiar with the mall food court variant, the bonanza felt like a cheat code with endless bowls of custom stir-fry plates of thick wheat noodles, sliced zucchini, crunchy bean sprouts, and sliced beef doused with spicy, garlicky sauce. Big Wok might be one of the last remaining Mongolian barbecue buffets in Southern California, and proof that delicious, fulfilling lunches are still attainable for under $20 in LA.

Mongolian barbecue boasts an evocative origin story, almost all of which happens to be completely fictional, at least the one presented visibly at Big Wok’s entrance and even openly on this chain’s website. The fable goes that long ago, Mongolians raised livestock as nomads, living like cowboys and cooking grilled meat on iron skillets. Genghis Khan’s warriors were supposedly fueled in this way, leading to the domination of much of the Eurasian continent in the 14th century (though, no mention of Khan’s atrocities). Eventually the Chinese adopted this cooking method, adding fresh vegetables and sauces alongside soft shaobing bread and tea.

In reality, Mongolian barbecue was conceived and marketed by comedian Wu Zhao-nan, who was originally from the mainland but fled to Taiwan in 1949. He opened a tea shop in Taipei the early 1950s and started serving griddled meat and veggie plates but couldn’t call it Beijing Barbecue due to political reasons. So he went with Mongolian barbecue, an association that the country of Mongolia might never have asked for, but also never bothered to complain about (khorkhog is the actual method of Mongolian barbecue).

Dining room of Big Wok in Manhattan Beach.
Dining room of Big Wok in Manhattan Beach.
Mongolian barbecue’s questionable origin story at Big Wok.
Mongolian barbecue’s questionable origin story at Big Wok.

Regardless, numerous imitators sprouted in Taipei, but in 1966, John C. Lee opened a chain of Mongolian barbecue restaurants called Colonel Lee’s Mongolian BBQ, the first in Northridge. The format still lives on in casual chain restaurants and mall food courts, but the all-you-can-eat variant that was part of Wu’s original Taiwanese restaurant has just a small handful of operators in the LA area. It’s unclear when Mongolian barbecue had its heyday, but given the dated dining rooms of extant Southern California restaurants, like King’s in Reseda, Caesar’s in Cerritos, and Big Wok in Manhattan Beach, the formerly trendy dish has been waning in popularity since the mid-’90s.

While a lot of Mongolian barbecue restaurants look worse for the wear, Big Wok, which is at least a few decades old and used to operate other locations, appears to be comparatively shiny, with modern chairs, clean banquettes, and a bright dining room filled with the South Bay sun (its website hasn’t been updated since the mid-aughts). Service is excellent and attentive too, with plenty of signs to guide first-timers (use a glove at the buffet, for example). For my first visit, my two, let’s say, “food enthusiast” friends — who know the ropes around buffet eating — jumped right in, loading up plastic bowls with shaved frozen meat, whose options include beef, pork, chicken, and lamb.

Then the work begins, loading in diced broccoli, onions, jalapenos, bell peppers, cabbage, carrots, and mushrooms (the list goes on…) before moving to thick wheat noodles that one loads up (those opting for rice can forgo noodles and get steamed white rice at the table). The most interesting customization comes with the sauce bar, where metal cylinders with barbecue sauce, ginger water, lemon water, garlic water, chile oil, “dragon” hot sauce, minced garlic, and teriyaki. Mix up a suggested combination or just go buck wild with what you might like.

Loading up a bowl at Big Wok.
Loading up a bowl at Big Wok.

Taking the bowls to a wide circular steel grill in the center of the space is itself a cultural experience that pulls at the primal heartstrings of famished warriors gathered around a fire. Skilled cooks take customer bowls, pour them out onto the grill, and splash water to hydrate the ingredients gently, which throws off dramatic billows of steam. Metal spatulas clink satisfyingly like a teppanyaki chef at work, and the two cooks shift the meats, noodles, and veggies in a graceful, coordinated clockwise motion. In a minute or so, the ‘barbecue’ is plated and ready to take back to the table, where baskets of sesame-seeded shaobing are presented as a belly-filling carb.

To me, Mongolian barbecue is more like a noodle stir-fry but tailored to one’s exact mood. Need some crunchy veggies and a sprinkle of grilled meat, all soaked up with spicy-tangy sauce? Done. Wanna go hard on the meat but light on noodles? Have the plate with steamed rice and shaobing. And the best part is, one can opt for a totally difference experience on the next visit to the buffet. I was able to take down two plates before tapping out, but it seems the real Mongolian barbecue pros reach for a third.

A prominent sign near the grill says, “Leftovers May Not Be Taken Home,” followed by “Cook All You Like, But Please Eat All You Cook.” It’s hard to imagine a meal so satisfying that the impulse to take leftovers home would be so unnecessary. But that’s exactly what all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue does: It satisfies the nomad warrior’s appetite to the point where the very thought of eating any more after this meal would just feel wrong.

Big Wok is open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (hours might expand on certain weekend days) and is located at 926 N. Sepulveda Boulevard, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266. No reservations are required, and ample parking in the back.

Two plates of Mongolian barbecue ready to get grilled.
Two plates of Mongolian barbecue ready to get grilled.
 Cooks grill at Big Wok.
Cooks grill at Big Wok.
Grilling veggies, noodles, and meat at Big Wok.
Grilling veggies, noodles, and meat at Big Wok.
Shaobing bread in a basket.
Shaobing.
A plate of spicy grilled meats and veggies at Big Wok.
A plate of spicy grilled meats and veggies at Big Wok.
Don’t take the leftovers home sign at Big Wok.
Don’t take the leftovers home.
Entrance to Big Wok in Manhattan Beach.
Entrance to Big Wok in Manhattan Beach.

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