The Real Chow Baby: Perplexing pow! 

Figuring out stir-fry

"Barracuda" plays obnoxiously loudly in the background as the Real Chow Baby bustles with the lunch rush. "This is my first time. Do you know how to do it right?" one customer nervously asks another while inching in line at this American-styled Mongolian barbecue, where diners are instructed to follow eight steps to create their own personal stir-fry.

Food confusion: We wish we had taken notes when the server explained the intricate instructions. Now we're standing in line at what feels like a rock 'n' roll soup kitchen, worried we might fail our test and not get fed if we don't pile ingredients correctly into the proper vessels.

While the coordination is something of a cluster, especially around noon, the end product is worth the learning curve. Veterans to the process will guide you along and you can keep going back to experiment: Lunch is $7.99 for unlimited remakes. Dinner is $11.99.

After dealing with complimentary valet parking, enter and the hostess seats you. A server gives you a spiel so rehearsed she must quote it verbatim in her dreams. You are given a wooden palette to write your name on and order desired drinks and appetizers off the menu (an additional cost). Then stand in line preplotting your strategy. As you approach the food bar, be ready to scope out options. Grab a black bowl for rice, noodles, veggies, garnishes and nuts. Ladle at least two scoops of one or more of the 17 sauces on top. The exotic sauces and the dried spice mixtures are the only thing that will add any flavor to the dish.

The raw and the cooked: Put protein selections into the smaller red bowls. There is chicken (always a little scary when it's sitting out raw), calamari, tofu, beef and imitation crab. Place color-coded sticks into your bowl to indicate if, instead of standard stir-fry, you want your combo made into a soup, wrap, salad or if you wish the chef to add shrimp. Hand it over to the nonplussed man behind the giant grill who is now god to your creation. Return to your seat and wait until the server delivers your divine design.

The price of creativity: The process, as well as the cacophonous atmosphere of the loft restaurant, is somewhat heady at first. The trendy black, orange and green splatters of color and the blasting music of retro songs can be a bit much. It is fun to be delivered your own creation, however. Like paying to get a mail-order certificate that says you're a real artist. Ego candy.

My friend chose to have his combo made into a soup with a rich coconut curry broth. I mixed various veggies, peanuts, pineapple with beef, shrimp and udon noodles. I selected a mixture of hot mustard, ginger lime basil and dark soy sauces and sprinkled it off with lemongrass powder. The stir-fry came together well but I have ideas about improving my strategy ... next time. That's where they get you.

The Real Chow Baby may be difficult for virgins, but all and all, it does offer a deal. You get to create your own plate for a pittance and some patience. And you get a moment to be an artist without all that sacrificial starving.

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