Chao's Mongolian Grill in Brainerd. (Photo: Staff)

This week, Monica and I visited what is now the only Mongolian grill in the city, Chao's Mongolian Grill at 5726 Brainerd Road. Located next to a Little Caesars Pizza, Chao's is a popular lunch and dinner location, with the flavors left up to you.

Owners of Genghis Grill—the only other Mongolian restaurant in town—announced they had closed the 138 Market St. location earlier this week. In the comments of that article, multiple people were complimentary of Chao's, saying they preferred it to Genghis anyway. And despite all the horror tales I've heard this week about Genghis Grill, I couldn't get the idea of some delicious Asian cuisine out of my mind.

Chao's leaves much of the decision-making up to you, allowing each customer to create their own meat/starch/veggie combination using—and this is key—fresh ingredients and spices. You'd have to try really hard to screw it up. Monica and I were hungry and excited to enjoy our meal.

The meat buffet at Chao's: Chicken, beef, sausage and more. (Photo: Staff)

Atmosphere/service
At a restaurant where much of the decision-making is up to you, you might imagine the service to be lacking. Not true at Chao's. The moment we stepped through the door, manager Jackie acknowledged us and led us to a table. I think she could tell by my face that I was a bit of a novice. She took the time to explain how it worked—choose meats, spices, veggies and sauce from the buffet—and had our drinks on the table when we returned.

Jackie told us that Chao's has been open for about four and a half years in this location, and I felt a little guilty this was our first visit. Perhaps it's the idea of raw meat on display that turns me off, but after this experience, I'm much more likely to return. The interior is similar to many Asian restaurants you'll visit. Booths and long tables are present. There is also a fish tank.

Many Asian restaurants seem bustling and hurried, but even with plenty of patrons, we found Chao's to be much more laid-back than other places. We were excited to make a food pile.

Season liberally to help add flavor to your bowl. (Photo: Staff)

The line
Here's how it works: You begin by selecting a bowl at the meat counter. Yes, this is a container with raw meat in it, but despite the "rawness" factor, I didn't feel weird about it at all. You might. And although a variety of meat is available—chicken, steak, pork, sausage, shrimp, crab, squid, etc.—you can skip straight to the veggies if you're feeling iffy on it. I chose a combination of steak and crab. Monica went with steak and chicken to start. Portioning is a skill that has to be learned. If you go too heavy on meat, you miss out on a number of veggies. A good rule is one-third meat, two-thirds veggies. Plus, you have to keep in mind that you're going to have a starch added at the end (rice or noodles).

Monica's bowl with steak and chicken. You could pile much higher than this, we learned. (Photo: Staff)

The spice rack is next on the line. It's difficult to mess this up unless you go too heavy. I stuck with a few dashes of salt, black pepper and garlic salt. Monica added those spices and paprika to her bowl. The veggie counter is what I was most impressed by at Chao's. It had every vegetable imaginable, and you can even add an egg to help congeal the rice together. Monica piled hers high with snow peas, water chestnuts, corn and mushrooms. I opted for broccoli, sprouts, bok choy and a few mushrooms. Our bowls were looking tasty.

At the final stage, before you send it to the grill, you're asked to choose a sauce. Chao's provides tiny ice cream spoons for sampling the sauces. All your favorites are there: teriyaki, sweet and sour, soy, orange, a "customer favorite" and "Chao's Mongolian." Monica and I both went with the Chao's Mongolian sauce because it tasted the best … like teriyaki sauce, but not as sweet or thick.

We chose our starches and sent the bowls off to the grill in the back.

Bok choy covering a bowl of crab and steak. (Photo: Staff)

The food
Our bowls were delivered in less than 10 minutes, and we were impressed with our creations. Monica thought my mix of crab and steak was weird, and I agreed. They cooked both perfectly, however. Monica's bowl was a little larger than mine, and she was generous to share her chicken with me. We started pondering what would be the worst-possible combination bowl, and I won with my creation of squid, sausage, pineapple and orange sauce on brown rice. 

The bowls were as good as any hibachi I've had around town, although I would definitely season my steak a bit more the next time. I felt a bit overwhelmed at having to make so many decisions on my own. But, as Monica mentioned, it's really difficult to mess this up unless you lose your mind for a second. 

Plenty of room left in the bowl for more food. (Photo: Staff)

Would we go back?
The appeal of Chao's is the variety. Although the Mongolian grill concept is a bit of a gimmick, I had fun choosing my own food bowl. Each bowl is $11.95 (although you pay by the weight after a certain point), and in retrospect, Monica and I both agreed we could have piled on much more food for that price. The Brainerd location is convenient from anywhere in the city, and Chao's offers a nice change of pace from a traditional dinner. It doesn't feel like a buffet as much as it feels like an adventure. We would absolutely return. I've heard Chao's is busy on the weekends, so plan accordingly. 

The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.