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City Chopsticks a Petaluma hub for Chinese food

Our most memorable visit to City Chopsticks in Petaluma was the time we took our Rotary exchange student from Paraguay there for dinner. It was the first time he had eaten Chinese food or even tried using chopsticks, and it was great fun introducing him to some of the things we take for granted here in the melting pot that is the United States.

City Chopsticks is located in the Plaza shopping center near the corner of North McDowell and East Washington Street. The restaurant is run by brothers David and John Lu, who have owned City Chopsticks for about five years. They are experienced restaurateurs, having run another Chinese restaurant nearby before this one.

The restaurant is open seven days a week, and they are even open on most holidays.

When we dined there for lunch, we ordered off of the regular menu, not noticing that there were lunch specials in the back of the menu, because we each had a particular dish in mind. However, the waiter was very nice, and brought us complimentary hot and sour soup. The soup was delicious, with just the right amount of spice, and served piping hot as well, a welcome start on a blustery cold day.

After the soup, we tried the chicken lettuce wraps ($11.75) appetizer, which was a huge portion, more than enough for the four of us, and we even had to ask for additional lettuce leaves because there was so much filling. The dish had plenty of chicken in it, without a lot of fillers that one sometimes finds at other restaurants. To eat them, take a prepared lettuce leaf, add some hoisin sauce if you wish, spoon in the minced cooked chicken with mushrooms, water chestnuts and green onions, and wrap it up, taco or burrito style. Do not miss this dish.

We must have been in the mood for finger food, because the next dish that arrived was the Mu-Shu pork ($11.25.) Mu-shu is a combination of cabbage, carrots, egg and green onions, stir-fried with a protein of your choice, and then served with very thin, translucent pancakes. Wraps the piping hot mixture into a pancake, adding a touch of hoisin sauce of you wish, and roll it up like a soft taco or skinny burrito. This is an excellent dish for children, because it is fun to eat, and does a good job of disguising the vegetables. City Chopsticks offers pork, chicken, prawns, salmon or vegetable.

Next came the spicy basil duck ($14.95), which we really wanted to like, but it did not quite live up to the menu description. The menu said it was boneless duck, but there were bones in some of it, and there was a lot of flabby skin and not much duck. Additionally it was labeled as spicy, but it had large pieces of jalapeño pepper that did not infuse the dish with spice, and those pieces were really spicy on their own and too large to pair with the duck.

The next time we were in, we chose a different duck dish, and I have since had a conversation with the owner about bones in menu items labeled boneless. He assured me he will review this issue with his staff to see that this kind of confusion does not happen in the future.

The Singapore Rice Noodles ($9.25) are thin rice noodles stir-fried with prawns, barbecued pork, vegetables and egg in a yellow curry seasoned mixture. Most aspects of this dish were fine, but the curry was under-spiced for our tastes. Since I have had this dish several times in the past and it was fine, I have to assume this was just an off day.

When we returned for a dinner, we had a much better experience. We tried the Wor Wonton soup (Large $11.75) and we were rewarded with a delicious, hardy soup full of pork wonton, and prawns, chicken and barbecued pork in a flavorful homemade bone broth. The large bowl was ladled out into individual bowls for us at our table, and the rest was left for us to serve seconds as we wished at the table. Two people could easily made an entire meal out of this one large bowl of soup, which is so hardy and tasty, it is perfect for a wintertime lunch or dinner.

As an appetizer we chose the salt and pepper calamari ($9.25) with fried fresh green beans. It was seasoned with salt, jalapeños and scallions. The calamari arrived piping hot, crispy and delectable. There was plenty for our party of five to enjoy as the prelude to the main courses.

Next up was the roast duck. This time we learned that the only way this restaurant serves the roast duck is on the bones, so note that for yourself when planning what to eat here. Personally I find that meat that is cooked on the bone has more flavor, but for some people dealing with the bones can be an issue that they would rather avoid. I do hope the owners will fix their menu, or the execution, because two of the three duck menu items say “boneless” but that was not the case.

The roast duck was perfectly cooked, with crispy skin, and tender flavorful meat. It is served with steamed buns, hoisin sauce, slivered green onions and slivered cucumber. To eat roast duck in a Chinese restaurant, one takes the duck, removes the bones from the meat and skin, adds the desired condiments to the buns, and the duck, and eats these as a kind of mini sandwich (think sliders).

The order comes with four buns, but we asked for and received two extras, which carried a modest additional charge. This was a great item to share with our party of five, as we each had one bun and a nice serving of duck, but we were not overwhelmed with the richness this dish can sometimes provide.

The star of the evening, in our opinion, was the ginger and scallion lamb ($12.75). With a minimalist menu description of “quick stir-fried in our house soy sauce” the quality of this dish really astounded us. The meat was all very lean, and there was a large quantity of it. It was prepared by being “velveted,” which is a Chinese cooking method that marinates the protein, and then it is briefly cooked in barely simmering water or oil just to seal the outside surface.

The combination of the marinade and the quick wet cooking creates a very tender and juicy protein. Then the item is stir-fried with aromatics (in this case lots of green onions and slices of fresh ginger) and finished with a light and tasty sauce that complimented the lamb, onions and ginger so that all the flavors were in perfect harmony with one another. Even if you think you don’t like lamb, you should really give this dish a try, because it will change your mind.

Ranking just behind the lamb, the Canton clay pot braised sole ($12.75) was also delicious and unusual. It arrived in a very hot clay pot, so hot that the bubbles were merrily popping along the edge of the casserole. The fish was very fresh, evidenced by the very sweet, fresh taste and lack of anything remotely fishy. It featured black mushrooms, button mushrooms, fried tofu, celery and carrots in a Cantonese sauce that was very spicy.

This dish is marked by a chili pepper, the key to “hot and spicy” on the menu, and it met the description. This is not for the faint of heart when it comes to any kind of heat, but well worth ordering if you do like spicy. The serving was also quite sizable, so this is a great dish for sharing.

We rounded out our menu with a plate of combination-fried rice ($9.25). It was filled with lots of shrimp, barbecued pork, beef, chicken and vegetables. It was very good, and abundant, so not only was there enough for the five of us, but there was about half the platter left to take home.

The service was very good at lunch and excellent at dinner. We were served quickly, and plates were cleared as we finished with them to give us more room. Tea is brought automatically to the table when you are seated, and refills offered as well. The tea is loose tea, brewed fresh by the pot, and quite tasty.

It seems that one or the other of the Lu brothers are always present, which insures that things are being watched over during the meal service, an attribute that is such an important part of the dining scene here in Petaluma, where on-site owner-managers do such a good job of taking care of their restaurants. This restaurant does a lot of to-go business, but that never seems to get in the way of the service to the on-site diners. They also offer free delivery in the evenings from 4:30 to 9 p.m. with a $30 minimum order.