OGDEN — The idea behind Lee’s Mongolian BBQ is creativity, doing what you want, fashioning a food combo that fits your tastes.
“The concept is always anything goes. The wilder the better,” said Shou Chen Lee, proprietor of the longtime Ogden locale, launched by his late father, Dah Lee, in 1978.
In its 41 years of existence at the same location at 2866 Washington Blvd. south of the downtown area, that’s been the guiding principal. The menu is unchanged, he says, though the variety of ingredients for the noodle-vegetable-and-meat food bowls is endless, and that’s part of its appeal.
“I think it’s consistency,” said Lee, explaining the business’ longevity.
The unique, do-it-yourself restaurant “cannot be everything to everybody,” he continued, but it’s created a niche and a steady stream of regulars. His elderly mother, who goes by Mrs. Lee, is a fixture, responsible for the distinct flavors and sauces offered at Lee’s. Many regulars — some representing the third generation of their families to eat at Lee’s — come to mingle with her.
“People come in, they say, ‘I’m here to see your mom, not you,’” said Lee.
As described by Lee, originally from Taiwan, the concept behind Lee’s Mongolian BBQ has its roots in the historically nomadic nature of the people of Mongolia. Being on the move, they would eat what they could find wherever they found themselves, mixing it up and cooking it over a flame. Likewise, at Lee’s, customers pick a meat or meats, placed in a bowl, then, going down a buffet-style line, top it off with noodles (spaghetti, actually) and the raw vegetables of their choosing. There are bean sprouts, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, zucchini, celery, water chestnuts and more.
As a customer, you mix the ingredients to your taste and stack the bowl as high as you dare. The price is the same, regardless. As one customer filled her bowl, she kept her hand on the side of the growing pile of meat, vegetables and noodles, steadying it to keep it from falling.
After that come the sauces, the more the better. Lobster sauce, curry sauce, garlic, sesame oil and more.
At the end of the line, the cook takes the mix and dumps it onto a hot, hot grill for cooking. The intense heat quickly sears everything and the sauce, aside from providing flavor, prevents everything from drying up. The recommended mix, in fact, calls for 10 to 11 scoops of sauce in all, sampling from eight varieties.
Once it’s all cooked, the chef returns the mix to a bowl or bowls, depending on how tall the customer’s pile of food was to start with, so it can be consumed.
White rice and egg drop soup come on the side of bowls served at lunch, from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. At dinner time, from 4:30-8:45 p.m., bowls are served with rice, soup and pocket bread. Lee’s Mongolian BBQ also offers its own distinct egg rolls.
‘A FLAVOR OF OUR OWN’
Dah Lee, originally from mainland China, collected taxes for a living back in Taiwan, where his son was born. Lacking the credentials to continue the same line of work here, he launched the restaurant, seeking a way to make a living.
“When you arrive to a new place, you got to make a living. You got to do something,” Shou Chen Lee said. The younger Lee, 12 when he came to the United States and now 54, grew up in the restaurant, “eating, sleeping and thinking about food.”
But he also did what it took to adjust to the United States, taking a sink or swim approach to life.
“You have to learn the culture. You have to immerse yourself in the culture. We come here, we don’t understand the language. Was that a struggle? Yes,” he said.
Now he’s expanded beyond the restaurant, also operating YourWayGroup next door, offering insurance, marketing services, consulting and more.
Even so, he still takes particular pride in the restaurant. There are plenty of locales to choose from for Ogden diners. HuHot Mongolian Grill, a Missoula, Montana-based chain of Mongolian-style grills, is now operating a restaurant in Layton. Through it all, though, Lee’s Mongolian BBQ has remained, surviving as an independent, stand-alone restaurant amid a landscape increasingly heavy on national chains.
“I think we have a flavor of our own,” Lee said.