SANTA CRUZ -- And now for something completely different.
Only a handful of authentic Mongolian restaurants exist in the United States -- and one is right here in Santa Cruz.
Oyunaa's Mongolian Cuisine is next to the Rio Theatre, where Backstage Lounge formerly operated. The first thing Lynn and I noticed when we walked inside was that the new restaurateurs, Flip and Oyunaa Sophie, had kept several of Backstage's striking features, including the cerulean blue walls and Michael Leeds' fantastic, functional sculptures. With the warm, moody lighting, Tuvan throat-singing music and authentic Mongolian artwork, it felt like being inside a deco-steampunk yurt.
Genially welcomed by Flip, we sat at a side table and chose glasses of pleasant Coppola Votre Sante Pinot Noir ($9) from a list of five wines and three draft beers. The modest menu featured four dumpling entrees, three soups and three salads, plus an evening special.
We started with Borsch ($10), a Mongolian take on Russian beet and beef soup, and for entrées ordered the Lamb Riblet special ($16), Kim Chi ($4) and two dumpling dishes -- Vegetarian Steamed Dumplings, or Buuz ($12), and Chicken Dumplings in Broth ($10), or Bansh.
Flip brought a steaming bowl of borsch, its rich aroma announcing the dish. Beautifully reddish-purple and loaded with stick-cut beets, the soup was topped with a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill. Lynn and I were both taken with the hearty, beefy broth, slightly sweet from the beets. Thin-sliced beef and pieces of pink-stained carrot and celery added flavor to this delicious, winter-savvy soup.
Our six vegan dumplings resembled round mini-packages with twisted tops. The prize inside: a blend of finely minced carrot, spinach, shitake mushrooms, garlic and onion, with bits of rice and braised tofu. It was accompanied by creamy potato-pea salad and a simple but addictive shredded carrot salad.
We attacked the lamb riblets with relish, gnawing at juicy, caramelized meat clinging to the slender bones. The plate included sliced English cucumber and tomato, rice topped with housemade tomato sauce and a cabbage salad that was a little too oniony for us both. The chicken dumplings in broth were another revelation: fat as a baby's fist, the dumplings revealed firm quenelles of ground chicken, spices and fresh ginger inside tender pasta. The kim chi was from a Korean store in San Jose and packed a lively, heat-spiked punch.
Oyunaa stopped by our table, introducing herself as the co-owner and chef. We learned that she uses only fresh herbs and makes her dumpling dough with just flour and water, no eggs; and that the Mongolian alphabet is Cyrillic, like Russian but with two more letters. The painted cowhide stretched on the wall behind us, she explained, depicted a day in the life of her Mongolian homeland. She also dispelled a culinary/cultural myth: "Mongolian barbecue" was invented in Taiwan and has no connection to Mongolia.
"I'm cooking everything but I also like to talk," Oyunaa said, smiling. Passing behind her, Flip grinned and nodded.
Lynn and I agreed that our favorite dishes were the lamb, borsch and chicken dumplings. We were also charmed with the tidbits that arrived with our bill: "Golden Gobi" Mongolian milk chocolate squares, the labels showing doll-like children in traditional costumes.
Oyunaa's space, menu and staff is small; the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. It's a place to enjoy your meal rather than hurrying in and out. As I told Lynn, I almost felt as if I were in someone's home -- someone who cooked exotic comfort food with names like buuz, khuushur, bansh and lapsha.
Ann Parker welcomes comments, feedback and suggestions about reviews for area restaurants. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oyunaa's Mongolian Cuisine
WHERE: 1209 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
HOURS: 5-11 p.m. dinner Wednesday-Monday; closed Tuesday
AMBIANCE: Cozy and charmingly exotic, with Mongolian music and artwork
COST: Reasonable (entrees, $10-$16)
DETAILS: 469-9900, www.oyunaas.com
Read more Sentinel dining reviews at www.santacruzsentinel.com/food.
More about Oyunaa's
Oyunaa (whose full name is Oyuntsetseg) grew up in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and met and married Flip Sophie in Santa Cruz when she was visiting in 2004. Flip is an advertising representative at the Sentinel.
The two had talked about starting a restaurant -- friends who sampled his wife's cooking always wanted to return for more, Flip said -- and thought the space next to the Rio was perfect; they opened Oyunna's on Oct. 2.
'My aunt and uncle own a restaurant in Mongolia -- my aunt came and helped us set up here,' says Oyunaa. 'I know it's hard work, but it's also doing something good for people and for yourself. And I wanted people to understand more about Mongolian cooking: it's comfort food.'
Most of her recipes come from her mother.
'My favorite is the lapsha (beef noodle soup),' she says. 'And I learned the lamb riblets and gulyash from my aunt.'
Flip's son, Chris, helps Oyunaa in the kitchen.
Mongolians who live in the Bay Area come to the restaurant almost daily, says Oyunaa. Visitors have included officials from San Francisco's Mongolian consulate and the director of Zamdaan, a Mongolian news group. Check out interview footage at www.oyunaas.com.
-- Ann Parker
Editor's note: An earlier version of a photo caption incorrectly named Oyunaa Sophie, and the restaurant's web address was also incorrect in one instance of an earlier version of this article. This version has been updated with her correct name and address, which is http://www.oyunaas.com.