Go firecracker

Fuzio Universal Bistro

828 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 442-2310

Foraging far from the Fuzio Universal Bistro’s firecracker pork, steak or chicken is foolhardy.

Some of the other offerings at the Ninth and J streets eatery are hit and miss. The $9.50 bleu cheese chicken salad with penne pasta is a miss; the Chinese chicken salad, a hit.

But when it comes to firecracker, Fuzio keeps the hits coming. While management is cagey about the full complement of components, the marinade for the meat certainly features ginger in a starring role.

Firecracker isn’t spicy per se, but it’s memorable. Although effective in all its iterations, the firecracker pork is more festive. Exhibit A: the $7.50 pork sliders and onion strings appetizer. There is a reason this is the first item on the menu. Even more compelling is firecracker pork fusilli with habanero pesto. A fiercely fiery flavor erupts by bringing the two tastes together. Plenty of pasta for $10.50.

The fierceness of the flavor is remarked upon by Janine Gibford, a rambunctious redhead who is passionate about the insurance issues she lobbies and the softball she plays but will not stop twittering about Twitter until I pledge to return to my office after lunch and join. She discovers the Chinese chicken salad.

The “Universal Bistro” is evident from the menu. There’s sukiyaki noodles right below linguine and meatballs. Southwestern gemelli with creamy chipotle sauce is above Asian noodle bowl which, in turn, is above linguine and clams.

Maybe the hit and miss is part of that pesky jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none thing.

While the menu says Fuzio is “your passport to wordly cuisine,” it also flags the firecracker specialties, in particular, the firecracker pork. It’s more than pole placement that makes it one of Fuzio’s most popular menu items. That said, not all firecracker dishes are created equal. Lower on the firecracker spectrum is the firecracker steak panini, one of seven panini options, which also include a tuna melt and an inventive ham and Swiss with balsamic onions and Caesar dressing.

The slices of steak are so narrow that much of the firecracker flavor is lost; what little remains is almost swamped by the bread. Similarly, the habanero spread only offers an occasional zing. Lay it on large.

Rather than go the $9.95 steak panini route, ante up $14.25 for firecracker steak. This Asian-tilting entree centers around a medium-sized three-quarters-inch thick steak with a colorful rooster’s comb of pineapple chutney. Filling the rest of the plate are gingery shanghai noodles, which can also be ordered as a pasta dish with chicken for $9.75. A diversity of asparagus stubs, mushrooms, onions and the green onion greens rounds it out. The vegetables, while fresh, are somewhat nondescript. More garlic when sautéing, perhaps? The veggies scream out for salt and would move several rungs up the culinary ladder if that salt were more exotic than Morton’s.

The firecracker chicken lettuce wraps? Ask for spicier Hoisin. Immediately above it on the menu are Vietnamese spring rolls, also $7.50. Lemon Grass Restaurant’s Mai Pham isn’t feeling Fuzio’s breath on the back of her neck over the rolls. What’s better is what the rolls are propped on: a mound of refreshing, palate-tickling, ginger-laden shredded carrots. The same salad also accompanies the wraps. The salad’s delights make a fairly strong case for sampling the $4.95 carrot-ginger soup.

Fuzio is a chain. Three restaurants are in San Francisco. Stockton, Davis, Modesto, Fresno, Fremont, Dublin and Davis also cannot claim to be Fuzio free. The Web site declares Fuzio’s chefs create culinary masterpieces. At least in the case of the fusilli, that’s fairly true.

A nice artistic touch for Aldous Huxley fans is the stylized bottle of Pinot Fuzio on the wall. Bottled in the Soma Valley in 1997, the label says. While there’s a healthy (although not bustling) lunch crowd, the friendly Wendy from behind the bar says dinner traffic blows hot and cold. When it’s cold, it’s downright frosty. Frosty enough she awards a coupon to make a dinner visit cheaper.

Either meal, two words: Go firecracker.