Danba Gamb, a 51-year-old Mongolian immigrant, lives in Los Angeles with his family. He is the owner and chef of the Golden Mongolian restaurant located on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown, Los Angeles.
His restaurant is the only restaurant that serves Khorkhog, traditional Mongolian barbeque.
Americans assume that grilling big chunks of lamb over a fire is how real Mongolian barbeque is made, but Gamb says that technique is wrong.
According to traditional Khorkhog recipes, hearty cuts of lamb are first sealed in a milk jug with a dozen smooth heated river stones. The heat emanating from the stones helps to cook the meat inside the jug. Throughout this process, the fat pulls away from the meat, leaving behind tender lamb wedges. Like a green light, the stones in the jug will turn black once the meat is well-done.
Gamb recalls that his first experience with Khorkhog in Mongolia was when his family and friends went camping in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, hundreds of miles away from his home in Ulaanbaatar. Gamb saw people preparing Khorkhog outdoors and found it delicious.
At the time, Gamb had no idea he would ever own and operate a Mongolian restaurant serving Khorkhog in Los Angeles.
Gamb worked as both a hydraulic engineer and restaurateur in Mongolia, serving traditional Mongolian cuisine. Unfortunately, Gamb said that government corruption in Mongolia was a big issue. He had to pay bribes to government health-inspectors to keep his restaurant from being given low health-ratings. Gamb found it increasingly difficult to maintain his business and eventually his restaurant was closed down.
In 2000, Gamb fled his home country to the United States, seeking political asylum. According to Gamb, hundreds of Mongolians applied for political asylum at the time because of Mongolia’s sluggish economy and political turbulence.
Leaving Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, Gamb settled in Los Angeles with his wife and two young boys.
In his new home, Gamb eked out a living sometimes as a construction worker and other times washing dishes and bussing tables. He worked at over ten restaurants including Chinese, Korean and Russian restaurants throughout Koreatown. Finally, Gamb thought it was a time to run his own.
“I see they [other communities] all have everything, food, schools, and hospitals, but we don’t even have Mongolian food. Why? Why isn’t there a Mongolian restaurant in town? So I run this business,” Gamb says.
In November 2014, Gamb opened Golden Mongolian in the only place he thought it belonged – Koreatown.
According to Gamb, there are over 7,000 Mongolian people residing in Los Angeles, and an estimated 5,000 of them live in Koreatown because Mongolians feel they share a cultural affinity with Koreans. Mongolians tend to stay together, finding community in a city where they are far outnumbered by larger Asian immigrant groups.
Although Chinggis Khan, the first king of the Mongol Empire, conquered a vast territory spanning vast portions of modern-day China and Europe 800 years ago, Mongolia’s total population today is only about three million. The Mongolian, a minority among minorities, faces many challenges after migrating to America.
Gamb experienced these challenges first hand. “I sent my boys to American schools, but it was difficult for them to speak English at the beginning. They felt inferior because they could not communicate with others,” he recalls. “They even cried to me one day and said they wanted to go back to Mongolia.”
This is why Gamb does what he can to help. Besides serving traditional Mongolian barbeque, Gamb provides space at Golden Mongolian restaurant for activities organized by the Los Angeles Mongolian Association, an organization that devotes time and resources to helping the Mongolian community.
Compared to the political business environment in Mongolia, Gamb says the system for operating a restaurant is much fairer in America. However, this does not mean it is any easier – the sanitation standards here are stricter. The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service grades restaurants on an A-, B-, or C-level and requires business owners to pay close attention to not only their restaurant’s hygiene and food quality standards, but also to the proper health and hygiene training for their employees.
Hard work does pay off. Today, Gamb and his family live in San Fernando Valley, California.
His wife, Enkhee, previously a university professor of chemistry in Mongolia, now works for American Analytics in Chatsworth, California.
Bars, their 27-year-old son, is attending medical school studies in Alabama. His 25-year-old brother, Tsend, is working as a software engineer in Texas. Sod, their youngest boy, was born in Los Angeles 13 years ago and is now in a middle school in Chatsworth, California.
“You have to work harder if you want to have a better life because this is America,” Gamb says.
Golden Mongolian is located at 3012 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90010.
This piece was originally published in The Second Power Grid, a zine focused on food culture in Los Angeles. Read more work from The Second Power Grid on Ampersand, an Arts & Culture digital magazine based out of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.