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.
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.