Mazalae Mongolian Restaurant in Morton Grove, Illinois

Let’s get something out of the way: Mongolian barbecue is not Mongolian. Not even a little. It was invented in Taiwan in the early 1950s, based on Chinese cooking techniques and global ingredients, and given the name almost at random. For the small but growing population of Mongolians in the United States, restaurants with names like “Mongolian Grill” have long been a point of contention.

If you want to try traditional Mongolian cuisine, there’s only a handful of restaurants in the United States that serve it (a website that tracks such restaurants worldwide lists just four in the U.S. as of 2019). One of these, opened in 2016 in Morton Grove, north of Chicago, is Mazalae, named for Mongolia’s endangered native bear

Mazalae’s interior is decorated with scenes of nomad life and a morin khuur or “horse-head fiddle,” a traditional Mongolian musical instrument. The restaurant does offer some faux-Mongolian dishes like “Mongolian beef,” but most of the menu consists of genuine Mongolian delicacies like khuushuur, Mazalae’s signature fried pastries stuffed with onion and ground meat. 

While there are vegetarian options, meat and dairy from the essential livestock species that Mongolian nomads call “the Five Snouts” are prominent here. Entrees like lamb noodle soup and tsuivan–stir-fried noodles with meat and shredded carrot–epitomize Mongolia’s simple, hearty flavors. Some dishes reflect international influence, like Chinese-derived dumplings (known in Mongolian as buuz, from Chinese baozi), and Russian-style chilled salads, which entered Mongolia when it was under Soviet influence.

Be sure to sample a steaming cup of savory Mongolian milk tea, which is flavored with salt rather than sugar, or a bowl of banshtai tsai, a soup that uses salted milk tea as the broth for meat dumplings.

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