In NW Calgary’s Beacon Hill shopping centre, you’ll find Xan Mongolian BBQ. You walk in and are greeted by slim, young hostess in tight black dresses. The whole place feels upscale with dark furniture, tall ceilings, and white walls lit by fancy sconces. Surprising, considering that you make your own meal bowls from the huge selection of fresh raw vegetables, meat / seafood, and sauces organized in a long buffet style bar. You get a trendy deep red bowl to fill up at $2.39/100g. You scoop in whatever you want to eat, top it off with sauces, and hand it over to the cook to weigh. He gives you a slip of paper with the amount and tells you that he’ll bring it to you when it’s cooked. After waiting for a few more bowls, the 3 cooks pour your creation onto a hot circular grill beside the others. You sit back at your table for conversation, and within minutes, a steaming plate of your selections arrives. The server brings over white rice and rice wraps to complement your dish.
Doesn’t that sound lovely?
Yes, but deceiving though! Here are my issues with this ‘adventure’.
1. I head out to a nice restaurant for a meal that I often don’t (and perhaps even know how to) cook. To pick my veggies and meat are a great idea since I want to know how fresh the items are. However, when it comes to adding the sauces, I count on the chefs to create flavor combination in their dishes to wow me. Not at Xan. It’s up to you. I don’t know how much ginger, garlic, Thai spicy, teriyaki, chili, soy, coconut curry, hot oil, black bean, sesame, or any one of the other sauces to put on! I scooped out what I thought would make a tasty dish, but in the end, sadly, my meal was bland. I was wrong. Fortunately, the server got me some chili paste to spice up my meal.
What I really wanted though was to add more of my sauce options as a real cook would … after all, aren’t I making my own meal? I had, what I thought, were the makings of a good black bean, beef and veggie meal. I’m sure if I added more black bean and garlic to my dish, it would have been delicious. That’s why I go to restaurants with menus … the chefs have skills in fusing spices and flavors. They would spice as they go until it’s right to be served!
I wonder how Xan would react if I handed back my cooked meal to the cooks and stood beside them, telling to add a little more of this, a little more of that? (… and how would they charge me? For each little scoop of soy?)
2. This leads me to my next observation. When the cook dumps my bowl on the grill, they begin to pour at least a cup of water onto my food, to steam cook the veggies I assume. At least, a cup of water!!! At times, I saw them adding more a few minutes later! All my careful planning for the sauces has now been diluted, washed away, or is running into my neighbor’s meal. Hey, wait a minute … what’s running into mine????
3. Let’s mention how it’s all priced … by the weight. The funky red bowls that they provide are heavy ceramic (not plastic nor an aluminum plate) so instantly, you pay just for sitting down. (Yes, I know you don’t actually have to pay if you don’t eat, but do you get what I mean?) The veggies are sitting in cold water … I presume to keep them crisp. But, do you know what veggies do in water? Yes, they soak it up thus increasing the total weight of your meal. I don’t like paying for watered down drinks so why would I like it done to my food? (Hey, wait there a second … that’s even MORE water in my veggies when they cook it! No wonder I have a tasteless dish!)
The idea for any buffet style place is to have a busy enough restaurant that they don’t need to worry about veggies turning brown from sitting around. I’m sure some customers in line were wondering why I was madly trying to shake off everything and squeeze the life out of my shitake mushrooms!
4. The meals are served with rice wraps and rice. You fold your own wraps. How????? In my hand???? By the time, I scooped enough veggies into my palm, the wrap soaked up the watery sauce and fell apart. I must have been doing it wrong, but the size of wrap encourages people to fill it up like a fat burrito. I tried it with a bit of rice on the bottom then built it up with my meal. That worked better! When we ran out of wraps, the server graciously asked if we wanted more … at no extra charge. I liked that!
OK, that was the bad and ugly. Let’s finish off with the good.
The servers were great! Friendly, smiley, and efficient. When we were done our plate, she came instantly to clear it away. She was informative and attentive. Impeccable server!
The decor was modern, roomy and stylish. We felt comfortable to chat and eat. Good diffuse lighting so you didn’t squint, especially with their wall high windows.
People seemed to be filling up their bowls to the brim and loving it. Steady flow of customers. Happy faces as they were at the buffet bar. I saw cute Chinese take out boxes (like in the movies) for leftovers. Oh, since you are in an Asian restaurant, you get a fortune cookie with your bill.
There was a lady in and out often re-stocking the items. The meat looked like it was safely handled and freshly un-frozen. The veggies were fresh and looked good except the white mushrooms that were not brushed off. (Visible chunks of manure / dirt on it.) The containers were clean. The sauces seemed to be in their containers and not dripped everywhere. Do note this warning … they have peanuts as one of their food options where people may mix up the spoons.
Would I recommend this place? I’m not sure. The atmosphere and service are great. The food can be great … only if you make it right. Account for their overuse of water when cooking. (But, that would mean additional weight for liquid sauces, which don’t necessary guarantee the proper taste anyways since it’ll most likely run off. In that case, can the food ever be good?) For my $14.90 plate, I could have gone to Edo and gotten something similar. Yes, I’m paying for variety, but I’d rather have a qualified chef fret over the right combination of flavors. (Not that Edo has a chef, but, let’s face it, their food at least has a teriyaki taste.)
This place looks good and the staff are well trained and attentive. This can go a long way in ones impression of the dining experience and for this I give Xan credit.
While I do like the idea of choosing my own food and mixing textures and flavors in new ways to experiment, I take exception to the billing structure and the obvious methods they use to pump up the weight of your meal. I’m referring primarily to the use of water in nearly everything they have on the selection bar, the veggies are sitting in it and I’ve no doubt that the meats are soaked as well. I had the same issue with Mongolie Grill in Dalhousie Station and have heard that the people running Xan are the folks who also owned that store but now have new partners with this attempt to upscale the same idea. If you charge by weight you set the price at a point that accounts for the weight of the food in it’s raw form plus overhead and profit You don’t rip off the customer at every turn by adding as much artificial weight as you can through the addition of water and use of diluted sauces. Also, if concerned about freshness and that excuse is used you simply adjust the quantity/ rotation of the food to match the level of business. My dish was much smaller than Nancy’s and the friend we dined with and thus much more easily showed the high prices. The amount in my bowl was less than the amount of most other single order stir-fry dishes you’d get at any Asian restaurant in the city and was just under $10. I’d pay $5 – $7 tops for this nearly anywhere else. It’s great to say “we charge $2.39 per 100g” but if every 100g of food out of the case equates to 130g on the plate you are ripping the customer off. I also would like to see the staff zero the scale prior to placing my bowl on it, but that’s just me.
Another issue is more of a pet peeve of mine than something that would affect everyone dining here but I feel reflects quality and the owners concern for attention to the details thus I’ll mention it. I really, really hate unfinished prep in the food I get served. I don’t like having to fish a prawn from a bowl of soup in order to remove the tail for example or seeing a huge dark sand vein that is full of poop in one placed in a dish I just payed alot of money for. While these could be said to fall under “you get what you pay for” and I somewhat agree, thus would be bothered by them less if the food was cheap they still show lack of concern in my opinion. In the case of Xan my issue revolves around things such as the poop on the uncleaned white mushrooms and the seeds in the slices of red bell pepper on the food bar which are two examples of lack of quality and a desire to expend as little energy as possible. While the pepper thing may be considered my nit picking I know for a fact that with very few exceptions nobody likes to eat manure.
My third point is one already mentioned by Nancy and bothered all three of us. I don’t get the use of so much water when cooking the food. There is enough that will cook out of the vegetables to do the job and most people put lots of sauce on their creations. I mentioned already that the sauces appear to be watered down and thus have lost some of the flavor they should have, my own dish with spicy Thai sauce had no flavor at all by the time I received it and this is despite putting two scoops on a smaller order, and to have what sauce I do have wash off the food is a real shame and just plain bothers me. I’ve actually cooked before and at no time have I ever put a cup or more of water on a stir-fry, even one that serves several people. There is no logic to it and other than to make as much steam for appearances I can see no reason for the staff at Xan to do this.
I think that the serving staff are great and find the look of the place to be pleasant, clean and modern. The selection was good and seemed fresh as well but the lack of effort in the food prep and the obvious attempts to squeeze as much money from the customers as they can make it impossible for me to have any desire to return to Xan in the future. I believe they need to add value to the equation if they are going to survive, once the new wears off they may find that customers actually care about these things.