When I want to get away from it all, but can’t, I like to escape through food. With increasingly hotter days, I’ve been imagining myself traveling across the chilly windswept steppes of Mongolia in search of dumpling nirvana. Thankfully, I’ve found it much closer to home, at Oyunaa’s Mongolian Cuisine. This is no Americanized Mongolian barbecue (as a server informed one couple upon arrival), but hearty fare from a high, cold nation rooted in nomadic history. Vegetarians and gluten-sensitive be warned: Oyunaa’s commitment to tradition means they rarely make concessions for dietary preferences.
On a recent visit with a friend, thick, captivating smells drew me in as I approached the small restaurant nestled off the intersection of Seabright and Soquel avenues. My friend said the few minutes he’d had to wait outside had been torture. Inside, gold fixtures and native-art-accented indigo walls crawl up to high ceilings—decor that befits a restaurant serving cuisine from the “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky.”
The flat Khuushuur dumplings ($14) are not to be missed. A braid of pinched dough seals a pocket of spiced, garlicky beef and is fried to a golden brown. Equally as delicious are the traditional steamed Buuz dumplings ($16), especially when hit with a splash of Oyunaa’s homemade mushroom soy sauce and one of their fiery hot sauces. A bit lighter on the palate are the bite-sized Bansch chicken dumplings ($10) served in a clear broth, aromatic with fresh dill.
If you’re lucky enough to arrive on an evening when the special pan-seared lamb riblets ($20) are available, go for it—they are so tender you can suck them off the bone, caveman-style. Our carnivorous feast was accompanied by tangy vegetable slaw, a supremely carroty carrot salad, creamy potatoes and a crisp local saison from Sante Adairius Rustic Ales. Hours are 4-10 p.m., and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Tuesday. oyunaas.com.
My favorite afternoon snack right now is a raw, fiery radish from Blue Heron Farms, $2 for two generous bunches at the downtown farmers market on Wednesdays. Vibrant hues of ruby, cerise and watermelon conceal crisp alabaster flesh within these little jewels. Cold, crunchy and flavorful, some are mildly zesty, and others peppery to the point of sinus clearing—a refreshing mid-afternoon perk. Spread with good butter and a little Maldon sea salt, with a glass of rosé, isn’t a bad way to enjoy them either.
If you love food and are on the ’gram, I recommend you follow @thecuratedfeast. The Curated Feast founder Liz Birnbaum’s beautiful posts are tiny yet thoughtful history lessons about the origins of food, with topics ranging from the Silk Road to ancient maritime trading routes to the vernal customs that led to spring rolls. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about her themed dining events, where she collaborates with chefs, farmers, florists and historians to explore the geographical origins and cultural repercussions of what we eat through unforgettable dinners. Curated Feast’s next event, Botanical Imperialism, will be held in San Francisco on June 19. thecuratedfeast.org.
One of the best things I discovered while I was traveling through Vietnam was banh mi, a sandwich served on a baguette, smeared with earthy, creamy pâté and filled with pork, crunchy pickled daikon and carrots, jalapeños, cilantro and mint: French Imperialism meets fresh Vietnamese flavor at its finest. So I was delighted to find out that Third Coast Chef founder Andy Potterfield, previously of Cremer House, will be serving up banh mi for lunch every Friday at Assembly’s POPUP. His version is smoky, creamy, crunchy, and supremely satisfying. Do your mouth a favor and check it out. Fridays 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at 1108 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz. heypopup.com.