I'm not averse to some work when dining out, be it crab-cracking, shrimp-peeling or salad-building. So when I walked into TK's Mongolian Grill and saw its layout of build-your-own bowls, I didn't cower. But I did wonder: Will my effort be rewarded?
Ordering at the counter in the earth-toned dining room is easy enough. Pick a meat — chicken or tofu ($6.49), steak or pork ($6.79), and shrimp ($7.49) — with extra protein available for $2.29, then grab your number and a small, foam bowl to fill with vegetables and whatnot.
The buffet-style line of veggies is next, and here's where the "whatnot" becomes a problem: Most offerings aren't labeled.
Three different colored and textured pans of anonymous noodles start the line. Vegetables follow, and on the upside most are recognizable — carrots look like carrots — but then again, sliced jícama looks similar to a bamboo shoot, or a water chestnut. Either way, those, as well as pineapple, cabbage, mushrooms, jalapeños, bean sprouts and more, are all available to fill your little bowl.
A similar buffet line of house-made sauces is the next stop, and this one has labels. In fact, this one has everything: garlic sauce, chili sauce, Mongolian barbecue, teriyaki, soy and "house" sauce. What it doesn't have is a sampling mechanism. And if it's not clear what any one sauce tastes like, it's sure as hell not clear how that sauce tastes when combined with another sauce. Plus, slopping it over a stacked bowl gets messy.
Anyway, you wing it, and take your bowl back to the counter to have it stir-fried at 500 degrees with your protein of choice. TK's opts for a wok, not the flattop of traditional Mongolian barbecue, in order to cook everything faster. And the 10 minutes does move when you get your complimentary bowl of fantastic egg drop soup, though we had to request it during our second go-round. Salty and delicious, with additional peas, carrots and chicken chunks, it feels more chicken noodle than Chinese.
Your dining concoction arrives next to a pleasant mound of cilantro-flecked lemon rice, and generally tastes like whatever you put in it — we had good luck with the Mongolian barbecue, chili and teriyaki sauces. Crisp, flash-fried veggies and sauce-soaked noodles were great as well.
Unfortunately, we had bad luck with the grilled proteins, which all tasted pre-cooked ... and how. The pork was pleasantly peppery, but tough and chewy. The steak was average, and tasted tough and chewy. The chicken was bland, and tough and chewy.
If that gets tiresome, get the tofu: It's mushy and undercooked.
On the plus side, TK's is MSG-free and cheap. Dinner for two, with drinks (and the included egg drop soup) ran roughly $17. Also, the space and service are very pleasant.
It's possible that the Mongolian Grill is still working out the kinks (it's only been in business a couple months) and will improve with time. But competition for the lunch crowd is fierce. TK's lies smack in the middle of South Nevada Avenue's typically fatal-to-area-restaurants fast-food row — not to mention close proximity to Mollica's Italian Market and Deli, and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Build-your-own is bully, but the food had better justify any culinary confusion. As of now, TK's does not.