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Fantasy Restaurant lives up to its Petaluma name

Petaluma has plenty of good Chinese restaurants to choose from, but it was the fresh salt and pepper fried Dungeness crab and crab and corn soup from Fantasy Restaurant that inspired our big lunch order this past Sunday.

Fantasy Restaurant

Where: 1520 E. Washington St.

Phone: 707-658-1866

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With many restaurants offering up crab-inspired dishes, co-owner Joanne Wu explained that the cuisine from her home region tends to keep things simple and fresh – like freshly fried crab served still in the shell. And it does not get any fresher than crab taken straight from Fantasy’s live tank and then cooked at controlled temperatures so the spices mix properly with the crab. Warm, and with just a touch of spicy heat, this was a wonderful departure from the sweet, chilled crab we normally enjoy. The large fluffy flakes of deep-fried batter which were coming off in our hands as we cracked the crab add another dimension, making this an even more interesting and delicious dish than we had anticipated.

Although simple enough in appearance, the crab meat and corn soup was also a real standout. Unlike a lot of Dungeness crab dishes, where the delicate flavor gets lost among the other ingredients, this one has a very distinct crab flavor without becoming fishy tasting.

The rest of our meal lived up to the restaurant’s name and was a mix of authentic Cantonese cuisine and Hong Kong-style barbecue. The co-owners are husband-and-wife team Vincent and Joanne Wu, who grew up and learned their kitchen skills in the southern region of China, where Cantonese is the primary language spoken. Although technically “Cantonese” refers to those from Guangzhou (its outlying cities), the surrounding regions of Guangdong and Guangxi are Cantonese speaking provinces too and so the cuisine generally refers to the entire region. For a frame of reference, only about 5% of China speaks Cantonese, whereas Mandarin, China’s official language, is spoken by close to 70% of the population.

Vincent comes from the southern province of Guangxi, which borders Vietnam to the west, the South China Sea to the south and the Guangdong province to the east. Joanne comes from the next province to the east, Guangdong. Guangdong also sits on the South China Sea, atop the two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Of special note, Hong Kong (a British colony until 1998) and Macau (a Portuguese colony until 1999) are the only regions in the world where Cantonese is the official language.

Both Vincent and Joanne had family in San Francisco who sponsored them to relocate here in the 2000s. “We used to visit friends in Petaluma and grew to love this town,” says Joanne. “When we decided to open a restaurant, we chose Petaluma because of the community feel.”

Fantasy Restaurant is their first restaurant and opened in early 2016. When COVID hit this past spring, they were particularly glad to have chosen Petaluma as their home and restaurant location.

“Regular customers have been so supportive,” says Joanne. “It’s the sense of community that brought us here in the first place and is now what is helping to keep us going. Everyone is like family and our regular customers are always telling others about our food.”

One such regular is Juli Lederhaus, Airbnb featured culinary instructor and fellow freelance writer. “One thing I would have to say about Fantasy is that once Joanne meets you and takes care of you, she will never forget you,” says Lederhaus. Her favorite dishes include the barbecued pork plate, Singapore noodles and shredded duck fried rice noodles.

For some reason, we do not frequently eat Chinese food at our home, even though we are fans of the broad and diverse cuisines. Oddly enough though, it is something that we tend to crave while on the road, even going out of our way to visit a (mostly) Chinese buffet while judging a barbecue competition in Graz, Austria a couple of years back. Still, it was a bit of a surprise to realize it had been five years since our last visit to Fantasy, which happened just after they opened.

This time around, we decided to hit all the major areas of the menu, starting with the salt and pepper crab and crab meat and corn soup, and then covering the rest of the table with roast duck, honey barbecue pork, honey barbecue spareribs, crispy roasted pork, sugar peas sprouts, honey prawns, dry scallop and egg white fried rice and the take-home version of Fantasy’s hot pot.

For those who are unfamiliar, “hot pot” is basically a pot of hot broth in the middle of the table in which diners cook various meats, veggies and seafood, depending on their desires for that meal. Some toss everything in and make a sort of stew, but most people add individual ingredients here and there, pulling out bites as they reach their ready, while adding replacements ingredients in preparation of the next bite.

Hot pot is especially popular during the colder winter months when friends and family take the opportunity to sit around the hot pot cooking, eating and socializing. While living in the East Bay, a group of us friends gathered religiously each week to enjoy hot pot cooking and camaraderie. Although not quite the same social event once taken home, Fantasy’s to-go hot pot still made for an excellent meal that left us craving more.

Fantasy offers two options for the hot pot soup — the house original is a delicious bone broth, while the vegetarian is mushroom based. For those looking to spice things up, they also offer a homemade spicy sauce that can be added to either of the soup bases, depending on your heat tolerances. Many hot pots come segregated so diners can enjoy two different soup mixtures from the same pot.

For our first try, we went with the mild bone broth, which was amazing on its own, but look forward to experimenting with a bit of added spice next time. We may even splurge and purchase our own two-part pot for hot pot. Joanne reminded us that cooking meats first will help add flavor to the soup and to add in veggies and noodles at the end, so they retain their texture, while benefiting from the added flavors they soak up from the meats. However, hot pot is highly customizable so you can do as you please. There is no wrong way to hot pot.

The hot pot menu offers several dozen choices of meats, seafood and veggies, creating a nearly endless number of flavor combos based on the ingredients, as well as the time cooked and the order in which they are added to the pot. All our hot pot items came sealed, which kept them safe during transportation and certainly helped keep them fresh too.

The premium tender beef slices were of good quality and tender and were the quickest to cook, only taking a few seconds to change color from red to brown, signifying that they were ready to eat. We opted to eat some and leave some in, to further flavor the broth. We also ordered several seafood options, including pork and shrimp wontons, fish balls filled with fish roe, and garlic fish fillets. All were excellent, although the garlic fish had us worried as the instructions had us cooking this ingredient the longest. We feared this might turn our hot pot into a fishy soup, but those fears were unfounded. The fish was fresh and meaty and the rest of the pot remained fresh tasting, free of fish, even the next day while enjoying leftovers. Our resident veggie eater added baby bok choy, a choy, sliced daikon’s and sliced winter melon and said all were so good that she would add even more next time. With bone broth this delectable, I would imagine it could make even my least favorite veggies taste good.

Although initially hesitant about the at-home hot pot experience, this turned out to be a huge success, with the unintended consequence that we had leftovers the next day because we had ordered so much food. Had we known how good the overnight soaking would taste during our next day’s lunch, we might have left more for leftovers.

Some of Joanne’s favorite dishes to both serve and eat herself are the roast pork, honey barbecue pork and fried rice, all of which we tried and enjoyed thoroughly. One of the simpler dishes on our table, the dried scallop and egg white fried rice was a true highlight and ended up as the base for just about every other dish, from the roasted duck to the honey prawns. However, Fantasy’s fried rice could easily be standalone dishes because they are so flavorful on their own. The rice is light and fluffy and the flavors are delicate and delightfully fresh.

The vast majority of Fantasy’s menu is authentic Cantonese cuisine, with a strong showing of Hong Kong style barbecue. One exception, as pointed out to by Joanne, is the honey prawns. I have a sneaking suspicion that what makes this dish the most “Americanized” on the menu is that it tastes like a mixture of cotton candy and corndogs, which as a county fair food fan, I mention in the positive. The prawns are fresh and the batter is light and luscious.

A few notes about the menu

As is recommended with all restaurants during the pandemic, diners should check Fantasy’s social media pages for current hours and the latest menus. After a bit of a website hijacking, Fantasy does not currently maintain a webpage, instead relying on its Facebook page, where diners can find the most current menus and hours.

“There are a lot of menus out there, but for current items and prices, people can check Facebook or stop by” says Joanne. “Or call us and we will text or email a copy of the current menu.”

On the menu, diners will notice that the first half dozen seafood items, from the crispy crab with salted egg yolk to the salt and pepper crab, have no prices. These items are seasonal and sold at market price based on what the fisherman are charging.

Additionally, there are a few items not normally listed on its menu, including its very affordable “all day special” rice plates with things like sesame chicken, broccoli beef and roasted duck. These are usually meant for quick pick-up and are more of a combo plate than Fantasy’s dinners, which come as individual dishes and in larger portions. These “all day specials” range in price from less than $10 for things like orange chicken and Mongolian chicken to the mid-teens for the two item barbecue plate. There is also a non-listed “family meal” posted to their window which comes with egg rolls (four), Mongolian beef, honey prawns, dry braised string beans and steamed rice, all for just $35.

Another “secret” item is Fantasy’s Peking duck, which is one of their few menu items that originated in the northern region of China. Traditionally, Peking duck and Cantonese roasted duck use different types of duck, but here in the states, as at Fantasy, they use the same bird. However, the preparation is quite different, with Peking requiring enough extra preparation that it is not offered every day and needs to be ordered a least one day in advance. It comes with buns, four kinds of veggies and three different sauces – plum, sweet flour and hoisin.

We had not planned far enough ahead, so opted for the roast duck, which was perfectly cooked, with skin like candy. This is one of Joanne’s favorites specifically because of the crispy skin. Another item that requires advanced ordering are small or medium roasted pigs.

“We don’t do a lot of these,” Joanne admits. “These are usually for a special celebration.”

When dining in, Joanne and her staff are available to guide diners through what might be for many, their first authentic Chinese meal. Even for those of us who have eaten a lot of Chinese food, there are plenty of menu items we had never seen before, nor would have known how to prepare or devour on our own, such as pork blood (for the hot pot) and the soy sauce braised duck chin. However, currently, Fantasy is only offering take-out, so Joanne invites diners to call in with any questions they have about items they are not familiar with.

“We have some items that Americans might not normally see,” admits Joanne. “But we want to offer an authentic experience to those that want to try, so we make those additional items available on the menu.”

One caveat regarding take-out is that some of your items will arrive at your car window at room temperature. However, this is by design, especially when it comes to some of the Hong Kong barbecued meats.

“We do this on purpose,” Joanne reveals. “It is meant to be taken home and get heated, but just for a little bit. If we heated those up to serving temperature prior to giving them to you, they would arrive at your home dry and greasy, which is not how they are intended.”

Although we love a good sauce, we often find that restaurants offering too many are often doubling up on flavors. But this is not the case with Fantasy. They are distinct and deeply satisfying, ranging from the sesame and Sa Cha sauces for the hot pot to whatever the dipping sauce is that comes with the roasted duck.

Fantasy offers both Chinese and domestic beers, plus a selection of wine, although we always opt to pair our meal with a beer from the country of that meal’s origin. In this case, we recommend Tsingtao beer, which was founded in 1903 by Bavarians who had settled in China.

Maybe we have gotten too used to eating at Asian buffets while on the road, but the biggest surprise to us was not the overwhelmingly seductive flavors and textures of Fantasy’s dishes but was the freshness and clean flavors of their meats and veggies. Although not a fan of the flavor myself, the a choy and baby bok choy were not only beautiful to look at, but I am told by our resident veggie eater that they were crispy and fresh when raw and surprisingly flavorful once cooked in the hot pot. Whether we were trying the various barbecued pork dishes, the crispy duck or the fried rice, everything had a clean flavor, and nothing left us feeling heavy.

We look forward to exploring Fantasy’s vast menu more thoroughly during future to-go order visit, although as soon as indoor dining is safe again, we hope to entice a few friends to join us for a hot pot dinner and get back to the health and happiness that communal dining brings, especially when the food is as fantastic as Fantasy’s.

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