Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mongolia Inside & Out 103 - Eating and drinking (mostly beer) in Ulaanbaatar

Welcome back to the Mongolia Inside & Out series!

The 102 post discussed the ger as an important part of Mongolian society and culture, along with a suite of related customs, themes, and ideas that shed a little light on the bigger picture (Mongolia).  This time let's take a peek into food, drink, meals, and dining in Mongolia.  Most of the 102 post will focus on experiences in the capital, which can be treated separately from dining in the rest of Mongolia (with some notable exceptions), as I plan to do a future post on the types and preparations of traditional food once I have better pictures.  For now:

Sustenance and succulence in Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar has undergone seismic shifts over the last 10 years in terms of the food and beverages available in stores, markets, restaurants, and bars throughout the city.  For these and more practical reasons - hey, you'll need to know where to get a good salad in UB after weeks in the countryside, trust me - I think Ulaanbaatar merits its own post.  Especially in the last 2-3 years, travelers and locals now have a decent variety of good options to choose from when they're out on the town or looking to buy groceries.

The Way Things Were, 2005-2007:

I remember when finding a few tiny green apples at the store was a rare treasure, and all ice cream seemed to be bland, freezer-burned, ice-encrusted, vanilla pre-loaded into wafer cones stored loose and unwrapped in a freezer bin along with unpackaged meat.  Now you can get local greenhouse-grown spinach and cherry tomatoes, corn chips, cocoa powder, imported European cheese, a plentiful variety of fresh-baked breads and pastries, and tofu without breaking a sweat.

I remember when there were a handful of good non-Mongolian dinner options, practically no coffee shops (yes, Millie's served good coffee, but that is not a *coffee place* and they roasted their own beans because where else were they going to get coffee?), and Cafe Amsterdam was pretty much your only choice for breakfast (unless you wanted to break your budget at Kempinski or eat at 11am).  Now you have so many choices that I can barely remember what it was like 10 years ago: sushi, Korean hotpot, vegan, Indian, Turkish, Chinese (and Xinjiang!), French, Mexican (we'll come back to that one), fried chicken, Japanese bakeries (yes, I mean bakerIES, plural), and on and on and on.  I remember being really excited to get real hot chocolate in 2007.

Just recently someone complained on UB Foodies - a whole Facebook community devoted to the city's food scene - about a cappuccino that had too much foam.  Ok, I'll take off my bifocals, put away the Werther's Originals, and get back to the heart of the post.

Because I've seen many a visitor struggle with getting a decent meal or finding a particular food item while in UB, I'm going to spend a significant chunk of this post attempting to rectify that situation.

Dining in Ulaanbaatar

Note that these establishments in UB have short lifespans and many of these places may be gone within 6 months (or 3 months.  Or tomorrow). However, I've made an effort to pick a number of places that have made it through at least a few years as well as a few newer places worth a try while you're in the city. 

Imagine this: you've just arrived in Ulaanbaatar after hours and hours traveling by plane and taxi.  Congratulations, you finally made it to Mongolia!  You likely want to have authentic Mongolian food for your first meal.  Let me advise you to hold off on actual Mongolian cuisine until your body has adjusted to the climate.

For starters, the best Mongolian food is almost exclusively in the countryside.  The quality of the ingredients in traditional cuisine is much higher when you're at the source: where the herds are grazing, the milk is flowing, and the berries and wild herbs are growing.  Summer party food like khorkhog (steamed BBQ using heated river rocks) and boodog (hot stones sewn inside the carcass) are for picnics, parties, and eating out of doors.  Having either at a sit-down restaurant is like eating a candy bar with a knife and fork: you can do it, but why would you? 

This is the equivalent of eating khorkhog in a restaurant in UB.
Yes, this is a Seinfeld joke; I am very hip to the youth culture.
However, if you're determined to have a Mongolian meal straight away, don't go to a nice-looking sit-down restaurant for a real Mongolian experience in UB.  A lot of sit-down restaurants will have little/no Mongolian cuisine on the menu.  Chains that specialize in 'traditional Mongolian cuisine', like Modern Nomads, are a huge ripoff: expensive, mediocre food at best, and incredibly touristy.  Instead, try a buuz (steamed dumpling) place or a guanz (Mongolia's answer to the greasy spoon).  I recommend Bayalag Buuz on the east side of the State Department Store: cheap, fast, and tasty.

So, what kind of Mongolian food would you like to try first?  Mongolian cuisine uses very little spice and tends to fall in a very narrow range of flavors (i.e., meat flavor).  You don't go to a Mongolian place for salads, desserts, or spices!

PEDANT'S CORNER: Mongolian BBQ, Mongolian hot pot, Mongolian stir-fry, or almost anything in North America that gets called Mongolian food is decidedly NOT Mongolian.  My understanding is that some marketing guru decided to brand a version of Chinese food "Mongolian" in order to broaden the appeal of mediocre dishes.  There are almost no actual Mongolian restaurants in North America.  Mongolian food is heavy on fried and steamed meats, light on the vegetables and spices, and served in ample portions.  While Mongolians do enjoy grilled meat, the more traditional methods are steam-pressure cooking (khorkhog, boodog), boiling, and frying.

BD's Mongolian Grill: decidedly NOT Mongolian food (image courtesy of Wikicommons)

You can get most Mongolian cuisine at any guanz in the capital or countryside.  The only dishes that take some advanced prep time or special arrangements are khorkhog and boodog, which I've already strenuously advised people to eat in the countryside rather than in UB.  So what *is* Mongolian food?  Here are some pretty standard options that give you a sense of authentic Mongolian food as it's prepared in the city (although you can get most of these dishes at restaurants and cafes anywhere in the country):

-Бууз/buuz: steamed dumpling filled with mutton (sometimes beef) and maybe some diced onions or spices (maybe!).  Order 3 or more buuz; folks with big appetites can eat dozens in one sitting.

Plate of expertly-pinched home-made buuz
PRO-TIP: suck the gravy/drippings out by biting into the dumpling, then eat the buuz in one bite.

-Хуушуур/khuushuur (pronounced HO-shur): a flat fried dumpling, much greasier than buuz but with similar filling.  Watch out for hot drippings!

Khuushuur (courtesy of Wikipedia)

-Цуйван/tsuivan: Mongolian wheat noodle stir-fry.  You will get a heaping plateful of thick noodles, strips of mutton (fat and gristle, too), and some vegetables (sliced carrots, red and green peppers, maybe potato) depending on the chef.  Order only if you are starving because you will never finish a whole plate, unless you are Andre the Giant.  Check out David Dettmann's entry on tsuivan for more information and a handy recipe:

PRO-TIP: liberal use of the Mongolian ketchup (red bottle) will brighten up this heavy meal.

-Гурилтай шөл/guriltal shul: noodle soup in a clear broth.  This lighter option is healthy yet filling.  The standard recipe is thick wheat noodles, mutton chunks, carrot, potato, and garlic.

-Будаатай хуурга/budaatai khuurag: stir-fry with rice.  The ingredients are similar to tsuivan but without so much grease or any noodles.  Again, the variety will depend on the chef.

-Сүүтэй цай/Suutei tsai: Mongolian milky tea.  Don't be fooled: milky tea is savory in Mongolia, not sweet!  The base is standard black tea boiled with salt, milk, and sometimes butter and even flour.  If you spend any time in Mongolia, you will absolutely drink some milky tea, either in a guanz or with someone's grandma in her ger.  Each region and family varies the standard recipe, so pay attention to the different flavors during your travels in Mongolia.

So you want to order food in a guanz or restaurant in Ulaanbaatar: how do you start?  Get a menu and ring the table dinger.  Or call out, zoogch oo, to get your server's attention.

LANGUAGE: Don't worry about not being able to speak Mongolian: just point at the menu or food items you can see.  But here's a little language primer for ordering a basic meal if you want to try out some Mongolian:

I will have (that) [i.e, whatever you are pointing to] - this is one of the most useful phrases for ordering, shopping, etc. in Mongolian.  For example:

Би гурван бууз aвья.
Bee GUR-van boudz ah-VII
I would like three buuz.

Би хүйтэн цэвэр ус авья
Bee KHUI-ten TSE-ver ous ah-VII
I would like cold bottled water

Цуйван гарах уу?
TSUI-van gar-ah-HUU?
Do you have tsuivan (today)?

Тооцоо хийе
I'd like to pay the bill

Many restaurants and cafes only have menus in Mongolian.  However, these menus often have pictures of most meal options to help you choose/guess.  You may happen upon a place with English-speaking waitstaff, but don't count on it.

PRO-TIP: Have a back-up meal and drink option in case the restaurant is out of your first-choice item.  Keep your ears open for this phrase: baikhgui (BAKH - gwei).  Baikhgui is used in all sorts of settings; in this case, it means "we don't have any of that".  Even pretty nice places often have a bad case of the baikhguis; when looking at a menu, I pick at least two options for my food and drink so that baikhgui doesn't throw me for a loop.

d) Recommended places: UB has gotten a lot more cosmopolitan in recent years and options for eating out have greatly expanded.  However, you're going to struggle a bit if you want to eat before 9am or after 10pm.  Here are my recommendations - current July 2015 - for your time in UB:

Cheap Mongolian food: Bayalag Buuz 
Location: east side of the State Department Store.  Go to the Adidas store and turn right into the little side street, head down the stairs (watch your head!), and find their little cafeteria buzzing with activity.

Bayalag Buuz is inexpensive, fast, and decent quality given the setting.  In my experience, they're less afflicted by the baikhguis than most other guanz, likely because they are a high-volume operation.  The ladies behind the counter also seem pretty used to foreigners, and will be relatively patient with your lack of Mongolian but very, very unlikely to speak or understand much English.

Food pick: mantuun buuz (man-TOON bouz), a steamed mutton dumpling in a thick yeast-risen flour dumpling.

Cheap Korean food: Mama's or any place on the road running northeast of the State Department Store
Location: the two city blocks northeast of the State Department Store currently have at least three Korean joints that serve tasty food at low prices.

The Mongolian palate is traditionally averse to spicy foods, so Korean (even the Mongolian version) can be a welcome switch-up.  Each place is slightly different but all serve decent mainstream Korean dishes.  The menus might have some English but the staff usually don't.  David Dettmann again has a list of more options if you're really craving Korean while in UB:

Food pick: Kimchi jigee if you're hot, Bibimbamp if you're not

Vegan and vegetarian: Loving Hut near the central Trade & Development Bank
Location: on the block southeast of the intersection north of the Flower Center in a row of shops, banks, and other restaurants.

Cheerful entrance of the recommended Loving Hut location (photo from

The staff speaks some English and they have an English-language menu.  Loving Hut is a chain (Korean, I think?) but this location feels like a quaint family-run diner.  Everything on the menu is vegan, a rare find in the land of meat and milk, and quite tasty!  Plus, the prices are very reasonable, especially considering how expensive fresh vegetables are in Mongolia.  Loving Hut is a great choice for a quick lunch while you're on the go.  They currently offer daily lunch sets at only 6,000MNT (less than $3) that will have you full until dinner time.

Inside Loving Hut: plenty of light and seating (photo from
Food pick: Macho Burrito

Indian food: Namaste
Location: on Baga Toiruu (the Little Ring Road) between Metro Mall and the Chinese Embassy.  It's on the west side of the street and has a large sign.  Go inside and up the stairs to their two-room dining area.  The friendly English-speaking staff will help you immediately.  There are two other locations, but I've found the Baiga Toiruu branch to have the best food.

Namaste is a little pricier and better for groups than single diners.  On the other hand, it's one of the best restaurants in UB, providing absolutely delicious food and great service over the years.  It's not trendy at the moment, so you're almost guaranteed to sit immediately.  Every time I've eaten at Namaste, everyone in my party raves over the food.  The waitstaff speak English fairly well and the menu is in English.

Food picks: Butter chicken; fish masala; mango lassi; naan basket

Burgers: Ruby Room
Location: about one block northeast of the State Department Store but set back behind a row of low-roofed shops on the west side of the street.

Ruby Room is UB hipster paradise - the trendy young staff and clientele will make you feel like you've stepped into a 21st-century John Hughes movie - and home to the best burgers in Mongolia.  The manager speaks English and is usually there, there are English-language menus, and they have (as of writing) Jack Daniels on the shelf.  The burgers are heavenly: juicy, charbroiled, and come with a variety of toppings.  But the fries are less great and they often have a rather limited selection of beers.

Food pick: Baconator

Breakfast/cheap: Nayra Cafe

Nayra's storefront (photo courtesy of happyhourkid on

Location: just west of Builder's Square and the Zanabazar Museum.  Head north along the east side of the State Department Store, turn right at the light, and look for the little cafe on the north side of the street.  Walk straight through the mini-mart to the stairs at the back and head into the dining area:

Barista at work behind the counter at Nayra's
(photo courtesy of happyhourkid on
An institution in UB, Nayra is a long-time favorite amongst expats and locals looking for a caffeine fix and a quiet place to read, work, or chat.  Nayra doesn't open until 9am but serves pancakes, omelets, and very good coffee in a low-key, sunlight room.  Nayra serves lunch and dinner but their breakfast offerings - hot meals, pastries, and coffee - are their stronger items. They have English-language menus and staff often speaks English.

Food pick: pancakes with maple syrup; chai tea latte.

Breakfast/hearty American-style: Khaan Deli
Location: tough to find the first time.  Head out of the city airport towards the airport.  Shortly after the main road turns west, turn right into a warren of Soviet bloc apartments just after Jetro Supermarket.  It may take a little bit of wandering but you'll see the sign for the deli as you follow the road into the courtyards.  Most days they don't open until at least 9am, so it's best for late breakfast or lunch.  It's a great pit-stop if you're visiting the Bogd Khan Winter Palace or going to/from the airport.

Khaan Deli specializes in comfort food: biscuits and gravy, breakfast sandwiches, milkshakes, and the perfect fare to fill you up after a long trip.  They even cure their own meats, make their own hot dogs and sausages, and expand their menu fairly regularly.  If you're really starving one morning, Khaan Deli is worth the trek.  You should be able to order in English without too much trouble.

Food picks: breakfast sandwich (eggs and bacon on a home-made biscuit), chocolate milkshake.

Sunday brunch splurge: Cafe Park at the Shangri-La Hotel
Location: south of Dashinchoilen monastery on the road that connects the Corporate Hotel and Bayangol Hotel area to the embassy and medical districts.  Can't miss the hotel's huge towers on the south side of the road!

Shangri-La is the first 5-star hotel in Ulaanbaatar and recently opened for business in 2015.  The main lobby is opulent and the staff professional.  Cafe Park hosts a brunch buffet on Sundays that require reservations (call the Shangri-La hotel); it's well worth it!  Several hot food stations (including an omelet chef), a crepe station, a jam-packed dessert bar, and waitstaff who bring unlimited juice, coffee, tea, and house wine make the per person 49,000MNT seem like a steal.  Take the whole 3 hours (12-3pm) to make the most of a relaxing Sunday.  Most of the staff speak English pretty well and, as it's a buffet, you mostly won't need to look at a menu.

Food pick: crepe station
*Note: Cafe Park is still working out the pricing and menu for the Sunday brunch.  Ask the on-duty manager or your server specifically what's included at what price before get started to avoid any unpleasant confusion.

Light lunch: The Green Zone
Location: east side of the Builder's Square immediately adjacent to the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum.

Inside the aptly-named Green Zone (photo courtesy of Trip Advisor UK)
The Green Zone is one of the newer additions to the Ulaanbaatar food scene and a welcome infusion of French bakery-style offerings made fresh on the premise.  The Green Zone bakes it own bread, does omelets all day, and serves up a variety of sandwiches, pastries, and other light fare that is a cut above the rest.  The space itself is bright airy, with high ceiling and walls lined with hanging gardens of plants and flowers, but small enough that it's not suitable for large groups.  The chalkboard menu is in English and the staff are friendly.

Food pick: Salade Nicoise

Upscale dinner: Veranda
Location: a small side street east of the National Library and Monnis Tower runs past Dashinchoilen Monastery.  Veranda is on the west side of the tiny street and second floor of the building.

Veranda's eponymous veranda in the upper right-hand corner (photo courtesy of Trip Advisor)

Veranda is an old standard here in UB for a reason: good service, excellent wine cellar, and delicious food.  Sit out on the eponymous veranda if at all possible for a lovely view of the monastery.  Not suitable for large groups or backpacker clothes.  Veranda has separate menus in English and Mongolian.

PRO-TIP: order a small entree or appetizer and share a salad bowl with a friend.
Food pick: steak salad bowl.  Definitely take a good look at the wine list because you probably won't find a better selection anywhere else in Mongolia.

Italian: Marco Polo
Location: on the south side of Seoul Street across from the central Khaan Bank building.  If you pass the hospital as you're heading west, you've gone too far.

Marco Polo's another long-time staple of the UB food scene.  They serve a nice variety of pasta dishes and pizzas that help settle a jet-lagged stomach or carbo-load after a taxing expedition in the countryside.  As the guide books will tell you, Marco Polo is right next to a strip club, but you really can't tell.  Doubt anyone who claims to have wandered into the strip club while looking for the restaurant; you're not fooling anyone, buddy!

Food picks: Quattro Formaggio personal pizza, green salad

Craving American fast food: Round Table Pizza
Location: on the south side of Peace Avenue just east of the State Department Store.

Photo courtesy of Google Plus

Let's be honest: sometimes even the most intrepid explorer gets a hankering for homey-yet-horrible food from their home country.  Round Table Pizza fills that niche without being utterly disgusting (like KFC - avoid at all costs!  Actually manages to have roaches even though roaches basically don't exist in Mongolia).  They deliver but also have a sit-down dining room if you don't want to wait over an hour for your pizza.  English isn't a problem if you're ordering in the restaurant; ordering over the phone is a little more hit-or-miss.

Food pick: Montague's All-Meat Marvel if you're missing pepperoni

Eating in bed while watching Netflix: Songo
Sometimes traveling can leave you too exhausted to go out for food.  Never fear!  Songo is the Seamless of UB.  They coordinate food delivery for a wide variety of restaurants and will get your food to you within about 1 hour of ordering if you're in the city center.  You can use their Iphone app or simply call (they have an English-speaking service line) while consulting the menu options on their Facebook page in both English and Mongolian.  The English-language operators are excellent and professional.

Food pick: gyoza and sushi rolls (yes, sushi!) from Miko Sushi

Bakery: Jur Ur
Location: northwest of the Flower Center.  Enter through the narrow footpath gates between the apartment buildings (head left around the corner at the Mongolian fast food joint on the SE corner of the traffic light); it's on the second floor of the main building with a west-facing entrance.

Jur Ur doesn't have a prison yard-vibe in real life

I've never understood why Jur Ur isn't more popular with the expat and tourist communities in UB.  It may be because the staff have little/no English, all the signs are in Mongolian, and there tends to be a higglety-pigglety approach to service (and queuing, which is par for the course in Mongolia).  However, the baked goods are amazing and the prices significantly lower than any European option.  They have a separate cake shop ("The Cakery") and in the main bakery serve a dizzying variety of pastries (sweet and savory), mini pizzas, bread, juice, and other tasty treats.  You can eat in their spacious cafe or take your food to go.

PRO-TIP: skip the sub-par coffee and get authentic Mongolian cranberry (ainsny shuus) or seabuckthorn (chatsargany shuus) juice with your pastry. 

Food pick: limontoi pirog (a giant lemon bar topped with meringue) for dessert, alimtai terguun (half an apple filled with blackberry jam baked into a pastry crust) for breakfast

Coffee: Caffe Bene
Location: almost everywhere, it seems!  The best branch is on the first floor of Metro Mall on the north part of Baga Toiruu.

Caffe Bene is an international coffee chain that's making a big splash in UB these days.  If you don't have time to sit at Nayra's (probably the best actual coffee in Mongolia), Caffe Bene is a decent second option with more choices, like frozen and blended drinks.  Some locations also serve excellent gelato.  English-language service is a little hit-or-miss but the overhead menu should be in English at all locations.

PRO-TIP: even if you don't see it advertised, ask to have your gelato in a waffle cone.  The price is the same as using a paper cup and it makes the whole treat that much tastier.

Food pick: mocha to drink on a cold winter morning; blueberry and strawberry gelato for a summer treat

Beer: Ikh Mongol (outdoor), Salm Brau pub (indoor)
Location: Ikh Mongol is located just east of the yellow-roofed Circus (Tsirq) and immediately south of the Natsagdorj Library.  Salm Brau is located up on Baga Toiruu immediately south of Metro Mall.

Ikh Mongol at dusk (photo courtesy of

Ikh Mongol - they brew their own beer and have spacious outdoor seating.  Often they have live music inside and outside.  You can also get decent food there.  For outdoor beer gardens, many people still go to Grand Khaan Irish pub, which is terrible (seriously, someone found a band-aid in their pizza there a few months ago!); Ikh Mongol is just as centrally located and maintains a higher standard (though, honestly, the bar isn't high).  English language menus available.

PRO-TIP: if you want to sit somewhere a little quieter, snag an outdoor table in the far south part of the patio along the entrance.

Salm Brau - owned by the Modern Nomads chain.  I know I ragged on Modern Nomads above, but Salm Brau 1) brews its own beer and 2) has more varieties of their own beer than any other place in Mongolia (i.e., more than two, haha).  Their beer hall is half disco club, so sit near the door and stairs unless you want to cut a rug or be blinded by the strobe lights.  English language menus available.

A future Mongolia Inside & Out post will focus on drinking in Mongolia, but you can get decent beer, wine, and cocktails at a number of locations in Ulaanbaatar.  When summer hits, it's lovely to sit out on a patio or rooftop bar and watch the sun set over the purple hills in the west.

If you prefer to prepare your own meals, you're in luck: there are plenty of grocery options in Ulaanbaatar to suit your tastes and budget.  That's a large enough topic that I'll leave grocery shopping for a subsequent post on shopping in general.  Suffice it to say, in Ulaanbaatar alone there are numerous grocery stores, convenience stores, wholesale grocers, upscale import markets, street vendors, and open-air markets that shoppers can now buy a good selection of vegetables and fruits all year round, staple foods for a wide variety of national cuisines, and conveniently grab milk, instant coffee, and ramen from almost any corner shop.

This installment of Mongolia Inside & Out was particularly heavy on tips and light on analysis; that goes with the subject matter.  When it comes time to consider food in rural Mongolia, more traditional meals, and food production in herding families, the tone will switch yet again.  Let me finish by saying that there's lots of good food to be enjoyed throughout Mongolia but that travelers should take advantage of Ulaanbaatar's fresh vegetables, mixed drinks, and international cuisine while they can - things are different in the khuduu!

Next time on Mongolia Inside & Out: all about alcohol!

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