Forgive this post for being a little schizoid. But when I visited the former Betelnut restaurant in San Francisco last month, it had recently revamped its interior and menu and had renamed itself Hutong restaurant. But after a lackluster review from the San Francisco Chronicle, Hutong abruptly became Betelnut again.
Fortunately, many of the more adventurous dishes that emerged from the Hutong menu remain available, now alongside classic Betelnut fare such as “Cecilia’s Minced Chicken Lettuce Wraps” ($12.50), named for Chinese culinary doyenne Cecilia Chiang, who was the original consulting chef for Betelnut.
Even better, long-time Chef Alex Ong remains at the helm, creating fiesty, pungent dishes reminiscent of Asian street food found in crowded alleys, otherwise known as “hutongs” in places like Beijing.
When I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant, it was still known as Hutong. Its interior was redone to create the feeling of being in an alley with walls that have been pasted over and over again with leaflets that have faded and grown worn with time.
From the “raw” section, you won’t go wrong with ahi slices ($13.95) splayed with bright shiso, the sweetness of diced fresh apple and the sharpness of mustard. Like so many dishes here, the flavors really hit all the taste buds.
An arugula salad ($8.98) brought a pile of crunchy and soft textures with napa cabbage and crispy yams in a honey, five-spice vinaigrette. Fresh strawberries, macerated in sriracha, were an unexpected treat — fragrant, sweet and juicy, but with a spicy hit.
Oysters on the half shell ($1.50) each are too much fun here with a topping of icy granita flavored with more sriracha and lemon. It’s a briny mouthful that heats your palate, but also chills it down at the same time.
Monterey squid ($7.95) are threaded on long skewers that get a smoky char, but leave the flesh tender with a spicy bird’s eye chili-lime sauce.
To nosh, there’s a salty, crunchy mix of wok-tossed anchovies and peanuts ($3.25). It’s what you want with a cold beer.
Lamb belly ($8.88) , tender as oxtail, is served in a cast-iron platter with a spritely jalapeno vinegar drizzled over.
Chicken wings ($8.88) are so smoky and flavorful on their own that you almost don’t need the accompanying sauces, a creamy sambal and a hot sriracha-lime. They’re made to be eaten with the fingers. Dive in, as a server will thoughtfully bring you steaming hot towels to clean your hands with later.
Having had chicken liver dishes a couple times at Ong’s restaurant, I can attest that the chef has a deft way with this particular organ meat. He knows how to keep its creaminess intact, without ever overcooking it to dry, toughness. Here they are fried and braised in an addicting black pepper sauce with plenty of onions ($6.50). You might not think you’re a liver fan. But I bet you polish off this dish before you know it.
Oxtail ($15) is one of my favorite cuts because of its intense beefiness. Here, it’s braised for four hours with star anise and sake. It comes to the table with a profusion of tiny honshimeji mushrooms on a sizzling cast-iron platter with a whole raw egg cradled in the center. As the server mixes it all up, the residual heat of the dish cooks the egg, which adds a fluffiness to lighten this rich meaty dish.
If you’ve had the hand-cut boar noodles at M.Y. China in San Francisco, you’ll find the ones here quite different. The hand-cut black pepper egg noodles ($10.88) come in thicker, larger pieces akin to chow fun noodles. The chunks of boar here are larger and more plentiful, too. They’re suffused with lovely cinnamon from the five-spice marinade.
For dessert, the Thai coffee ice cream will soothe and satisfy. It’s topped with coffee granita and a drizzle of condensed milk. It’s like one of those coffee candies you loved as a kid.
The new dishes are by no means tame. Their strong flavors announce themselves immediately. While some may be more pungent than you may be used to, no doubt you’ll find yourself wanting them, even craving them, after you’ve had them just once. Hutong or Betelnut — whatever it’s christened — this is one restaurant where there’s only one word to describe its food: Addicting.