Dec 7, 2021

Embrace your inner Mongol at Mazalae Mongolian Restaurant, Morton Grove, Ill.

Ask any one of my 13 faithful followers, and they’ll tell you I will probably try any type of food at least once.  Much like Andrew Zimmern, if it smells tasty and at least looks edible, I’ll give it a go.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my travels as a commoner to sample a pretty wide variety of fare that’s fairly uncommon to my Midwestern roots – from Cuban to Ethiopian, from Eastern European to Middle Eastern.  And, thanks to a work assignment to the northside of Chicago, I can add Mongolian cuisine to my ever-growing list with a memorable meal at Mazalae Mongolian Restaurant in Morton Grove.    

Like so many hidden gems, Mazalae’s location doesn’t impress by any stretch of the imagination.  You’ll find it among a smattering of small storefronts on a busy section Waukegan Road where Ill. Hwys. 43 and 58 briefly come together. 

The interior of Mazalae is just as modest with a few notable exceptions.  The small bar area toward the rear of the dining room doubles as the center of operations.  This is where I was greeted by who I have to assume was the owner/manager of what obviously appeared to be a family-run business.   

I was escorted to a booth on the right side of the dining room, which afforded a perfect view of the Mongolian-themed artwork on the opposite wall.  I was also seated adjacent to the only other customers present who, as is turned out were either friends or family of the owners.  This immediately came in handy, as they were able to help me conquer the language barrier with my server and aid me in the ordering process.    

There were two menus on the table to consider.  With the help of my newfound friends, I was politely steered away from the daily specials which must have taken advantage of a great wholesale deal on intestines.  I like a food challenge, but while my Mongolian friends would have been perfectly happy with one of these entrees, I’m sure they were wary of turning me off of their cuisine.    

Having been convinced to order off the “regular” menu, I didn’t want to go with the obvious choice of Mongolian beef.  I still wanted to branch out a little.  With their help and direct discussion with my server, I settled on the beef stir fry noodle dish (aka tsuvian) and a starter of UB salad, which is essentially a Mongolian version of potato salad. 

After a brief discussion with my fellow diners about what a beautiful and welcoming country Mongolia is, they went back to their meal, and I settled into my booth to watch what I can only describe as a Mongolian version of MTV.  From what I gathered, their music artists like to sing proudly along river banks and atop hills.  The scenery did further help sell me on the country, though.

While I waited, I was served a complimentary side of a cubed fry bread to snack on while my meal was being prepared.  It honestly wasn’t much in the flavor department but it definitely served its purpose of getting you in the mood for your entrée.  

Appropriately, the UB salad came out next.  After a few yummy bites, I concluded this potato salad would be a hit at any picnic – potatoes cubed and cooked to a perfect texture, combined with a generous amount of egg and carrot and topped with green onion.  My only worry was that the massive portion they served would curb my appetite for the main dish.  

I shouldn’t have worried … the entrée was just too good to let any go to waste.  … an ample pile of thin, tender slices of beef mixed with almost-as-thin, chewy noodles with scattered shavings of carrot, onion and zucchini throughout the dish.  A splash of green onion was added to the top for decoration and one last little zing of flavor.  All in all, this was a very savory and satisfying main course.    

Mazalae Mongolian Restaurant is probably as authentic of a Mongolian dining experience as you’re going to get in Illinois.  And you don’t even have to dine in a yurt or ger to enjoy it.  I noticed a phrase near the top of my menu which read, “Everything made from scratch and big heart,” and I believe it.  Even before I found Mazalae, I had put Mongolia on my travel bucket list.  Now I want to go even more so.  But if that never works out, a trip to Mazalae is just a few hours away and offers a pretty nice taste of the culture.

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