Are you in the mood for the satisfying stir-fries and sweet and sour meats of Chinese cooking, or would you prefer the delicate green flavors of soups and fresh rolls of Vietnam? At Goji Kitchen, near the Junior College in Santa Rosa, you can have both.
Goji’s menu lists 87 dishes, about evenly split between Chinese and Vietnamese recipes, and 41 beverage choices. You’ll find many of the familiar Chinese standards: kung pao chicken; chow mein; house-made potstickers with sesame, soy, ginger and garlic sauce; Szechuan beef, and many Vietnamese or Southeast Asian favorites like green papaya salad, pho (soup), bun and lemon grass chicken. But you’ll also find a slew of dishes you may have never heard of before, like “roll-it-yourself grilled shrimp paste on sugar cane with fresh herbs.” Many dishes feature meat and seafood, but there are many suitable for vegetarians and some for vegans as well.
Goji Kitchen is two worlds of cooking, seemingly distinct but with subtle relationships, such as the rice that’s used as the staple starch in both cuisines or Chinese egg rolls and Vietnamese fresh spring rolls. Three kinds of rolls, each cut into four pieces, filled a plate of Goji Sampler Rolls ($8.95, 2½ stars). One was a Sonoma goat cheese spring roll served with a tamarind sauce (that saved it from blandness). The second was an excellent shrimp and pork fresh spring roll served with a house-made three bean sauce, and the third was a grilled free-range chicken roll served with nuoc cham, the familiar Vietnamese dipping sauce made from garlic, red pepper flakes, fresh lime juice and fish sauce. Like most of the dishes at Goji, this was a lot of good food for the money.
The dining area is one large, open room with black tables (three of which have Chinese-style lazy susans), black chairs and a wait staff dressed entirely in black. The sound system plays light jazz. Water for the table is filtered in-house through an imported filtration system and costs $2.95 for a small bottle and $4.95 for a large one. You are given a pair of chopsticks and a fork wrapped in a cloth napkin. The staff could hardly have been better at their jobs. When asked, they seemed to know every ingredient of every dish. They worked with dispatch. They smiled. It was a pleasure just to watch them care for their customers.
The wine list is small, with a handful of Sonoma County wines (the 2008 MacMurray Ranch pinot gris for $24 is a good choice with this kind of food), but also two Sancerres, a St. Pourcain from the center of France, a Corbieres, a Burgundy and two Italian reds, all between $20 and $39 a bottle. Beer might be the best choice with this food, and the list includes Chau Tien, the best beer you’ve never heard of. It’s brewed by a Vietnamese man in the Anderson Valley.
Among the 20 appetizers and salads is Prawn Stuffed Chicken Wings ($7.95, 2½ stars), a nifty idea. The bulb of white meat on the first wing joint, the one butchers call drumettes, is slit open and a prawn is stuffed inside. The slit is pushed closed, the drumette dipped in batter, and the whole thing is fried. It’s a delight to eat, and the fresh-tasting prawn and chicken together strike a surprisingly good flavor harmony. Six pieces are served with lemon wedges.
Crispy Young Tofu ($6.75, 2½ stars) may be an acquired taste, since the marshmallow-sized chunks of soft tofu are very bland. They’re served with a fruity dipping sauce that provides the only flavor in this appetizer. While the tofu is boring, the pho isn’t. Pho Ga ($8.95, 4 stars), or chicken noodle soup, is a dish to swoon over. The soup base is a delicate, clear chicken stock with just the right amount of salt and a sparkling, clean flavor. Beneath the soup’s surface are slices of chicken breast, parsley and chopped scallions. Fresh bean sprouts, sliced jalapeño, a basil sprig and a lime wedge fill an accompanying plate, and the idea is to use as many kinds of these extras, in whatever quantities you wish, to enliven the soup. I used them all and haven’t enjoyed a bowl of simple soup that much in years.
If you visit Goji Kitchen, look for the chalkboard with the day’s specials. On a recent night, they included a vegetarian Basil Eggplant with Garlic Sauce for $7.95, Deep-Fried Salt and Pepper Fish for $10.95, and the appealing-sounding Chicken Clay Pot ($9.95, 3 stars). The covered clay pot was brought to the table, and the server removed the top to reveal a huge, bubbling, steaming mound of chicken bits, shiitake mushrooms and basil tips in a spicy garlic sauce. Among the 11 noodle and rice dishes on order, you’ll find Organic Wild and Brown Rice ($3.50, 3 stars) wrapped in a green banana leaf and steamed. The rice was sweet and delicious, and topped with the clay pot’s contents it was enough food for two people. The clay pot was a nightly special, so if you want to try this, order the “chicken sauteed with basil and mushrooms in a spicy garlic sauce” for $11.95. It sounds like the same dish, only without the clay pot.
If you’re familiar with Vietnamese restaurants, you’ll know how tasty bun (rice vermicelli noodles) can be. You can choose your noodles with various meats and seafood. Bun Bo Nuong ($9.95, 3½ stars) is grilled beef and rice noodles served over a big bowl of lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, herbs, roasted almonds and nuoc cham. Nestled into the noodles are the strips of grilled beef, matchstick cucumber slices pickled with mint and cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon radish bits. There’s an overwhelming freshness in this dish that’s irresistible.
Orange Peel Sesame Beef ($10.95, 2 stars) is a familiar dish from the Chinese cooking treasury, and once again, the portion is huge. The beef is cut into thin, narrow strips, coated with an orange-peel-infused, spicy-sweet batter and fried. It’s sprinkled with chopped scallions and sesame seeds before being served. The problem with Goji’s version of this popular dish is the chewiness of the beef. A good set of molars can deal with most tough beef, but this meat made for unpleasantly hard going.
Vegetarians will appreciate the Goji menu, where they’ll find dishes like Szechuan Green Beans ($9.95, 2½ stars). The beans are what used to be called string beans before plant breeders bred the tough strings out of them. Today they’re called snap beans, and a large dish of them were cooked lightly in a spicy Szechuan brown sauce.
Among other pluses, Goji uses no MSG. Steamers are used for heating; there is no microwave. Chicken is free range from Petaluma Poultry, and roasted almonds are used in place of peanuts for toppings.
To sum up: It’s nice to see Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines sharing the bill, which greatly enlarges the number of Asian dishes to choose from.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.