by Lauren McAllister

The HuHot Mongolian Grill looks a little incongruous on East Sprague. In an area of indistinct little strip malls interspersed with big-box retailers, the HuHot commands a second look. The entry is framed by big, funky stainless steel pillars; an imposing sign announces the restaurant's location. The interior is equally stylish, with a big mural dominating one wall. In fact, while the restaurant looks like something you might find in a resort area or just outside a big theme park, it is part of a new chain based in that bastion of Asian cuisine, Missoula, Mont.

I suppose that in Spokane, 8 pm is a bit late for dinner on a Friday. Still, I was surprised to find we had the large dining room almost to ourselves. No matter, our foursome settled in at a nice booth by the window. The centerpiece of the dining room is a big circular grill where white-toqued grillmasters await your orders.

That's right, at the HuHot you're in charge of the cooking. Our server explained that dinners ($11) include soup or salad and as many trips through the grill line as you care to make.

The restaurant features a massive salad-bar style assortment of ingredients. On the night we visited, there was thinly sliced chicken, beef and pork, as well as pollock and sausage in the meat department. There were yakisoba and pad thai noodles and tofu. Vegetables included diced carrots, sliced mushrooms and onions, corn, thinly sliced red potatoes, peas, bamboo shoots, cabbage, spinach, green peppers and cilantro. But the real showstoppers at the HuHot are the myriad of sauce combinations. There are a dozen, often cleverly named, house sauces -- Feed the Hordes Hoisin, Black Thai peanut, Yellow Belly curry, Burn Your Village barbecue, Kung Pao-POW ... you get the idea. Heat ratings from no flames to four flames assist in making choices. Various flavored broths, such as garlic and ginger, as well as soy sauce, sherry and vinegar are also available for the more proficient visitors who wish to create their own sauces.

Fill up a colorful bowl with uncooked ingredients and sauces, and the chefs-in-waiting will cook up your creations on the big grill. If you don't like what you've created, go back and try again. If you're still hungry, go back and have some more. The record, in case you're wondering, appears to be a diner who went through three times with three bowls full each time, according to the chefs on duty the night we visited.

It can be a little overwhelming to select ingredients that go well together, so some reusable recipe cards are provided on a magnetic bulletin board for diners to carry through the line to assist in making selections. These cards were kind of sticky, and even though it's great to save paper, here's one occasion where it may be better to splurge. Nonetheless, I chose one that included beef and snow peas. I soon substituted chicken, and when I discovered there were no snow peas, started heaping other appealing ingredients in my bowl. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, broccoli, onions and even a little cabbage all found their way into my bowl. Then it was off to the sauces. I used a few ladles of Bekter's ginger sauce, and a couple of the Yellow Belly curry, and on a whim, a ladle of ginger broth. (Sauces are all made from scratch and are MSG-free.) After the chefs finish cooking your food, chopped peanuts, coconut and red pepper flakes are available to provide a finishing touch. Steamed rice or tortilla wraps are provided at your table to augment your stir-fry.

My companions created their own little masterpieces, and we all returned to our table to rate our creations. I was quite pleased with my curry dish, though I found it to be hotter than I'd expected with the two-flame rating.

Another trip through the line, and I tried the Pillager's red curry sauce with the three-flame rating, along with some other sauces. It wasn't quite as hot as the yellow curry, and much sweeter, with lots of the promised brown sugar and lime. It went well with the pad thai noodles I had chosen. Choosing your sauces makes for a fun dining experience; I want to go back to try some of the others. (HuHot could even sell their sauces to go, as other chains do, like Tony Roma's.)

Dinners include soup or salad. On the night we visited, the egg drop soup was too sour and went uneaten, while the salads were pleasing, with an assortment of baby greens topped with mandarin oranges and sliced almonds. Our only complaint here was the puddle of dressing at the bottom of the bowl. And really, who needs a salad when there are so many vegetables to choose from in the grill line?

Appetizers are similarly superfluous. We tried the sampler ($8) with egg rolls, crab Rangoon and shrimp wontons. The Rangoon and shrimp wonton were bereft of seafood, and so were simply differently shaped deep-fried cream cheese wrapped in wonton wrappers. The egg rolls were similarly unremarkable, as was the accompanying sweet and sour sauce. For dessert, we tried the deep-fried cheesecake with cherries, which, yes, was as bad as it sounds. Tough, greasy wontons contained a gelatinous mixture of what was apparently some form of sweetened cream cheese. The only saving grace was the vanilla ice cream topped with cherries that accompanied the cheesecake bombs.

Service was pleasant but inexperienced. Our empty plates cluttered the table throughout the meal. And there were recurring, niggling issues with cleanliness that cropped up throughout the evening, too: The first bowl I picked up at the grill line was dirty, and spoons that came with dessert were not quite clean. Like a salad bar, this is a great concept in fresh dining, but it creates a challenge for any restaurant staff: When diners handle the food, things get messy. In retrospect, an antibacterial handrinse at the end of the line might be a good idea after handling all the ladles and potentially coming into contact with raw meat. Just a thought.

The HuHot features tasty sauces and a wide array of ingredients allowing diners to create endless combinations. So skip all the other stuff and head straight for the food bar. But remember to savor your creation, because unless you write it all down as you're going through the line, you'll never get the same dinner twice. And that will keep you coming back for more.

Publication date: 05/19/05

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