Hawker Fare Comes to San Francisco
With Chef Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok blazing a trail coast to coast, and San Francisco restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit acquiring ever growing praise for her Kin Khao, Thai is just about the hottest cuisine around right now.
Now comes James Syhabout, Oakland’s only Michelin-starred chef, to add his stamp with Hawker Fare in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Syhabout’s original Hawker Fare has been going strong in Oakland, along with his more ambitious Commis. But this outpost, which opened about a month ago, is his first foray across the bridge.
When I asked him if he felt he was competing with the other celebrated Thai restaurants that have come to the forefront lately, he replied, “I’m competing with myself. I’m cooking a lot of dishes that I’ve never made before, based on things my family cooked in Thailand.”
Recently, I had a chance to taste some of those dishes when I was invited to a media dinner.
The restaurant is done up as if you were eating at a night market in Thailand. Walls are decorated with bright-colored floor mats tables covered with slick oil-cloths printed with flowers and fruit, and the ceiling strung with strands of lights. All that’s missing is the humidity and the torrent of scooters.
Hawker Fare San Francisco is much larger than its Oakland counterpart, complete with a second bar on the mezzanine level that can be used for private events. Tiki-style cocktails are the specialty and include the Mystic Lamp ($11), a floral-fruity blend of aged rum, lychee, lime, orange and Orgeat. Enjoy it alongside a beer nuts ($5), roasted with salt, garlic chilis, and makrut lime leaves that provide an unexpected and unforgettable flowery-lime perfume so lovely it alone draws you again and again to the bowl.
The food, which is meant to be shared family-style, hews to Syhabout’s roots in northwest Thailand near Laos. It is full of pungent, assertive, funky and salty flavors — all the better to enjoy with copious amounts of perfectly steamed sticky rice ($3) that arrives at the table in small woven bamboo containers. The rice is sticky enough to use in lieu of a utensil — pick up a tablespoonful with your fingers, then dip it into a dish to pick up a morsel.
In fact, with at least one dish — the Moo Yang BBQ ($13) — you’re encouraged to do just that. Thin pork shoulder chops are marinated in whiskey, white pepper, coriander and garlic, and served alongside a dipping sauce of fish sauce, chiles and lime. The dish doesn’t come with a knife. Instead your server instructs you to just tear off a hunk with your fingers.
Indeed, the food may be by a chef well versed in fine-dining, but the experience here is meant to be anything but that. The food is served on common melamine plates and bowls you’d find in a typical mom-and-pop ethnic Asian restaurant or at a street food stall abroad. There’s no artful presentation. Just food cooked with care to be enjoyed without pretense.
Blistered green beans ($9.50) are charred with curry paste, bacon and dried shrimp, leaving them crisp-tender, earthy and briny.
Jaew Bong ($10) brings a thick puddle of Laotian chili relish made with galangal, shallots and dried shrimp. It’s surrounded by pork rinds, cabbage wedges and cucumber. Think of it as chips and dip — only with a most powerful dip that really fires up the palate.
Papaya salad comes in two versions. Som Tum Lao ($10.50) is the less sweet one. Shards of green papaya come with pounded salted black crab, fermented fish sauce, dried chilis, and lime. If all you’re used to is the bright and tangy Vietnamese version, you’ll find this one a whole lot more complex and savory.
Om Kra-Toog Moo ($12.50) is a deep bowl of intense pork broth laden with pork ribs, cabbage, Thai eggplant, long beans, chilis and the lilt of dill. It’s a very porky tasting dish without being weighed down with a lot of fat and richness.
Laab Moo ($12) is a mound of minced pork with pork liver mixed with shallots, mint, cilantro, green onion, toasted rice powder and fermented fish sauce. The liver adds a subtle gamey note to the dish.
Seen Ping ($13) is tender, medium-rare beef brisket cut into thin strands to dunk into a zesty Thai dipping sauce.
For dessert, odiferous durian is tamed when made into ice cream ($7), but still possesses its unique, fermented, cream cheese-y flavor. It was served atop pandan sticky rice cooked with palm sugar to sweeten it. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea — as evidenced by the two guys on my right who took one spoonful and stopped at that. But I found it a pleasing and authentic way to end the night.
For those used to an abundance of sweetness and peanut sauce in their Thai food, Hawker Fare San Francisco provides the perfect antidote to that.
More: Hawker Fare in Oakland
And: Commis in Oakland