Steppe Inside

dining oyunaasOyunaa’s brings traditional Mongolian nomadic fare with a dash of Russia to midtown 

In the 1970s, Mongolian barbecue chains spread like wildfire into strip malls across America. I recall gathering my choice of raw vegetables from a buffet and handing them over to a cook who would add meat and stir-fry it on a griddle; rather like the American version of Japanese teppanyaki without the cleaver acrobatics and flying shrimp.

While waiting for our first course at Oyunaa’s Mongolian Cuisine, Phil Sophie, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Oyunaa, offered a travel brochure which summarized the country’s history and cuisine. Phil admitted that the snack of pan-toasted pumpkin seeds had no ties to Mongolia, but are just something the couple likes to eat.

Under Genghis Khan and his successors, Mongols conquered lands in Asia and Europe, creating the largest continental empire in world history. Today, 30 percent of the population remains nomadic, their animals grazing on the grassy steppes. These people subsist on meat and milk from their herds plus vegetables and noodles. It is this tradition that forms the basis of Oyunaa’s cuisine.

Phil demonstrated a passion for the Mongolian culture, proudly pointing to a Mongolian Horsehead fiddle, the national instrument of Mongolia, which hangs on the lustrous royal blue wall. A woman they met in Santa Cruz and reconnected with on a visit to Mongolia presented it to the couple. It turns out she was the Secretary of State to Mongolia. Such fiddles, which are played more like a cello, traditionally have two strings made from tail hairs of horses.

A video was streaming on the restaurant’s television, following the lives of nomadic peoples. Beasts of burden pulled a huge cart located with a circular yurt-type dwelling called a ger. Herds foraged and mothers milked the animals. It was an educational way to pass time while Oyunaa was alone in the kitchen making dinner.

Oyunaa’s restaurant serves the three most popular kinds of Mongolian dumplings. Bansh ($10) are boiled while Khuushuur ($12) are deep-fried. We chose the half dozen steamed Buuz ($12), circles of house-made dough filled with seasoned meat and juices and sealed with a pretty pinwheel pattern. They were served with two of the daily-made salads; a Russian-style potato salad with peas, hard-boiled egg, and big chunks of pickle, and one of sweet shredded carrots.

On a different visit we enjoyed the Bansh. In large bowl of light chicken broth floated 10 potsticker-shaped dumplings, chewy and stuffed with spiced ground chicken and minced carrots, with soft diagonally sliced carrots and minced dill floating on top. It certainly took the chill off a late-autumn night.

Phil told us that Mongolia’s relationship with Russia had been important for decades, and that Russian is the most frequently spoken foreign language in Mongolia. Oyunaa attended Russian schools while growing up, speaks the language fluently, and incorporates some of that cuisine into her menu as well.

Beef Gulyash ($14) featured big chunks of beef with tender red and green bell peppers, onion and the occasional peppercorn. The meat’s rich flavor reminded me of that in my mother’s stew. It was served alongside rice with a tomato-colored sauce and a delicious salad with pepitas and light sweet vinaigrette.

Also on the menu is Russian beef and beet Borsch soup, and huge bowls of Lapsha ($10), in which wide house-made noodles swim in a rich, meat-infused broth with strips of beef, carrots and green onions.

The Sophies do their best to shop local, and are regular customers of Staff of Life. Their meats come from Shopper’s Corner where Phil appreciates the hormone- and antibiotic-free choices and Oyunaa likes the quality of the ground meats for her dumplings.

The three beers on draft were from Santa Cruz Ale Works, and we enjoyed a pint of their wonderfully hoppy IPA.
dining oyuna
There are a number of rotating nightly specials, which might include Baked Chicken in Mongolian Spices or Shepherd’s Pie or, usually three nights a week, Lamb Riblets ($14) from Shopper’s Corner. Tender glazed meat fell from the bones. It was served with a cup of tomato sauce-topped rice, sliced cucumber and tomato, and shredded cabbage and carrot salad.

On our second visit we saved a bit of space for a dessert, which was a locally sourced chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream accompanied by petite dessert forks. The moist, dark cake was topped with chocolate cream and fondant and decorated with red and green holly.

While the restaurant is currently open only for dinner, lunch hours are in the works.

Oyunaa’s Mongolian Cuisine, 1209 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 469-9900. Beer and wine. Serving dinner Wednesday through Monday from 5 until 11 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays Visit oyunaas.com or connect on Facebook.

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