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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Successfully navigate your way through buffet heaven

There comes a time in every food lover’s (and by that, I mean everyone’s) life when they must ask themselves, “Have I ever been to Flat Top Grill”? If the answer is no, I suggest you apologize to the food gods and get to the Hilldale Mall, where there exists a glowing, bountiful land of fresh vegetables and succulent sauces that will make all your wildest all-you-can-eat buffet dreams come true.

Flat Top Grill is an Asian-American, create-your-own stir-fry restaurant. This is the process: you grab a bowl and choose from rice or noodles for your base, then pile it with vegetables like snap peas, squash, zucchini, green and red peppers, mushrooms, spinach…basically, anything you expect to see when you pop the lid on a white Chinese takeout box.

After the vegetables, you ladle on the sauces. The 25 spicy, sweet, and savory sauce flavors make for limitless combinations and experimentation. Flat Top Grill recommends five ladles per bowl and one sauce per ladle, because, in the words of my Botany professor: “Blending is beneficial.” Most of the sauces are Asian-inspired (it is a stir-fry restaurant, after all), with titles like Kung Pao Hoisin and Asian Sesame Ginger. But fear not, my fellow red-blooded, meat-eating Americans. If prefer your culinary adventures to stay in the western half of the world, tex mex-type sauces like Black Bean Garlic and the salsa-inspired Vindahoo are here to save the day.


The second-to-last step of the creation process brings even further vindication to the land of apple pie and baseball: MEAT. Here you can fill a separate bowl with the standard fare, such as chicken, pork and steak. Or if you’re feeling more adventurous, the calamari, white fish or squid.

Right before you hand your bowl over to the grill guys, you have the choice of skewering your meal with any number of eight different-colored sticks. The blue stick means your meal will come with Roti Prata, which describes as “Thin Indian flat bread (moist on the inside, crisp on the outside).” The pink stick turns your stir-fry into a hot and sour soup, and so on.

Flat Top’s whole spiel is that they cater to everyone, so I decided I would put together three dishes: one Asian, one American, and one vegan.

For the Asian dish, I went online and found a recipe from Heather Shouse, self-professed Flat Top fanatic and contributor to Time Out Chicago’s “Restaurants & Bars” section. The ingredients: brown rice, zucchini, snap peas, mushrooms, green onions, quorn (mushroom meat), spinach, egg and (of course!) roti bread. Her sauce was mostly Indian Coconut Curry with a ladle of Vindahoo and touches of Hot Red Chili, Soy Sesame, Ginger Water and Garlic Water. I deemed this one “The Mongolian.”

For the American dish, I sat down and basically constructed a recipe from the only ingredients my dad would tolerate. The end product included a ton of meat plus the green bits on pizza – green pepper, spinach and mushrooms. For the sauce, I chose the Black Bean Garlic, Really Wild Mushroom and all-around tasty Flat Top Grill Sauce. And Korean Barbecue, because it had “barbecue” in the name. On a whim, I also dumped on some Vindahoo because it smelled like salsa and seemed like it would go perfect with Black Bean Garlic. This dish I called “The All-American.”

Finally, I asked one of my Flat Top-worshipping vegan friends what she gets when she goes there. She had me piling a bowl with red peppers, noodles, squash, tomato cubes, and tempeh (soybean meat). For the sauce it was a ladle of Flat Top Grill Sauce, a ladle of Teriyaki Sauce and about a bucket of Korean Barbecue.

To my surprise (and to my friends’ surprise, and to the waitress’s dismay, and to my stomach’s….nevermind), I actually made it through all three bowls. Our waitress gave me an “are you serious”? look when I implored her not to take any of my semi-empty bowls away. But hey, one of the consequences of comparison taste testing is looking like a pig. You have to make sacrifices somewhere.

The bold, fresh ingredients and uniqueness of each dish makes truly hard to determine which one was my favorite, so I will distill my overall experience into a few key pieces of advice when eating at Flat Top Grill:

  • Tempeh is phenomenal. The texture is pleasingly meaty and it bursts with a savory nutty flavor. Soak that stuff in some Korean barbecue sauce and you have what might almost be called a religious experience. I was going to name The Vegan my favorite, but I realized it would have been completely on account of the tempeh, and that just wouldn’t be fair.
  • Come to think of it, the fake meats at this place actually beat out the real meat. Stay away from those dried bits of chicken breast and shriveled strips of pork and beef. With their soaking power and less of a tendency to dry up on the grill, the quorn, seitan, and tempeh are more conducive to stir-fries. If you must go for the real thing, get beef.
  • Though I would have to name Korean Barbecue as my favorite sauce, there is so much to be said for all the rest. Flat Top Grill’s signature sauce is up there, and Teriyaki Sauce, and Black Bean Garlic. The dark red, scary-looking Vindahoo was a pleasant surprise; it gave a wonderful picante-like kick.
  • The sauce bar is where you should let your creativity come into play. Mix and match, experiment, have fun! Oh, and five to six ladles truly is the rule. Over-sauce it and you get slimy noodles, under-sauce it and you get a tasteless dish.
  • Sometimes the eggs get so ground up during the stir-fry process they whittle down to crumbs or get lost to another dish. For a while, there was a myth going around that putting a white “allergy stick” in your bowl would prevent this, since they have to clean off the entire grill and cook it separate from everyone else’s. This is not true. I put the allergy stick in my first two bowls, and the only time my eggs came out whole was in the last bowl.

Even with the student discount, prices are high. $11 for one bowl, $13 if you go for the unlimited. The two dollar price difference makes the unlimited a worthy option. Careful with the take-home boxes-they cost $6.

If you like to experiment with your food and love Asian and American cuisine, this is the place for you. Actually, I would recommend this place even if you’re more of a Mexican food fan. With so many ingredients, flavors, sauces and chances to correct your mistakes, it’s seriously hard to go wrong.

For more of the latest and greatest in the food world, chew on these links:

  • McDonald’s is trying to improve their image with a redesign of 400 stores nationwide (Fast Company).
  • Mayor Dave Cieslewicz champions building a public market across from the planned downtown high-speed rail station (Cap Times). 
  • New Coffees keeps track of new roasts as they come in around the world, for coffee-lovers looking for a higher-quality morning kick in the pants (Gizmodo). M
  • Brooklyn Kitchen encourages adventurous eaters to get a little more buggy with their palates (New York Times).
  • Deep-fried Coke at the Texas State Fair (Slashfood).

Sam is a junior majoring in journalism. Send comments, suggestions and recipes to [email protected].

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