From Food Truck to Pop-Up
Article & Photos by Virginia Miller
The Bay Area already boasts some of the best Asian food in the US, in a diverse range of categories. Though I can’t recreate the settings from the months I spent traveling Southeast Asia, I can find some of those flavors… and many more from places I long to visit… authentic and complex here in the Bay Area.
What follows are noteworthy dish/es, including fresh dumpling and Malaysian street food interpretations, from six new Asian restaurants (two being pop-ups, one a food truck) open a few months or less.
KOJA KITCHEN, Food Truck
One of the best food trucks to come along, well, maybe ever, is Koja Kitchen. While they make a steady run around the Bay Area, I catch them in my own ‘hood at Off the Grid Haight. Koja ($6 each) are essentially sandwiches where “bread” is toasted rice patties. My favorite is sweet, ground bulgogi beef, mixed with sautéed onions, sesame vinaigrette slaw, and their house red sauce.
I’m most in love with their crosscut fries (the Kamikaze Combo works best at $10.50 for koja, fries and a drink). The fries are elevated by soft, ground Korean bulgogi beef tossed with sautéed onions, kimchi green onions, house sauce and Japanese mayo… a sweet, savory mound of comfort.
AMERICAN BAO BAR, Mission (pop-up locations below)
Chef Blair Warsham traveled through Southeast Asia, taking inspiration from street food-rich countries like Malayasia to create the dishes in his current pop-up, American Bao Bar. Check Bao Bar’s Facebook page to confirm pop-up dinners, but currently they’re at Nombe on Monday nights and Southpaw BBQ on Tuesdays.
Changing dishes arrive in a filling $35 tasting menu, which started strong recently with red curry chicken XLB soup dumplings. Warsham’s XLB (xiao long bao, aka Shanghai soup dumplings) are tender, the dumpling wrappers chewy, al dente, encasing vivid curry and fowl. This is XLB like you’ve not had it before. Three bao or “hot buns on a plate” are stuffed with cumin lamb belly, grilled chili paneer and crispy five-spice smoked pork, the former a tad dry, the latter being my favorite.
Visually striking crispy rice forms a disc around an egg, served with hen and spring vegetables, while chicken is wrapped in plantains, inflected with a savory banana sambal sauce. Shrimp, pineapple and coconut pop on a shrimp chip accompanied by shooters of creamy Malaysian bouillabaisse, my other favorite after the XLB.
Dessert from Batter Bakery is understated perfection: mini-ice cream sandwiches, like chocolate five spice caramel ice cream in chocolate cookies, or oatmeal coconut cookies filled with gloriously tart kaffir lime sherbet.
HOUSE of PANCAKES, Parkside (937 Taraval between 19th & 20th Ave.; 415-681-8388)
Service is slow and Parkside is out of the way for many, but House of Pancakes serves delights worth trekking out for. Yes, there are Asian pancakes aplenty, but it’s the house-pulled noodles and fresh, al dente dumplings that enchant. Pancakes ($3.95-7.95) are solid, particularly simple green onion pancakes… but not the highlight. Think hand pulled noodles and dumplings.
Watching noodles hand pulled through the kitchen door is mesmerizing, as it is at Martin Yan’s new MY China… but House of Pancakes’ noodles ($6.95-7.95) are far more gratifying: think chewy comfort in broth, served with likes of lamb or seafood. The dense joy of the noodles carries over into impeccable, doughy dumplings ($5.95-8.95), filled with lamb or pork and chives, even fish of the day. Other than painfully slow service, House of Pancakes is one of the more exciting hole-in-the-wall Chinese eateries to come along in awhile and added to my favorites list.
HUTONG, Cow Hollow (2030 Union St. at Buchanan; 415-929-8855)
When I moved to SF at the beginning of 2001, restaurants like Ti Couz and Betelnut were on my regular dining circuit. Thankfully, the spirit of ever popular Betelnut remains, as does Chef Alex Ong. Betelnut was recently reincarnated as Hutong, with artful graffiti and bolder dishes fusing his Malaysian childhood, once part of a “secret” Blackboard Eats menu. But as of last week and one day after a negative review from the Chronicle’s critic, Michael Bauer, Hutong switched back to Betelnut. I’m disappointed as I witnessed promise in the more ambitious menu that was still working out kinks.
Highlights were on the raw/crudo side ($12-14), like sea bream in chili-lemon soy with radishes and mizuna, ahi tuna in apple-mustard sauce, or tombo tuna dotted with creamy wasabi, tobiko and lime. The raw great, however, was briny oysters icy dotted with Sriracha-lemon granita ($1.50 each). Chicken livers tossed with onions in black pepper sauce ($6.50) were on Ong’s secret Blackboard Eats menu, evolved into a seamless, meaty liver dish. Giant whole Gulf prawns ($3.74) were plump, wrapped in bacon and dipped in chili jam, while thin slices of lamb belly ($8.88) in jalapeno vinegar, a mainstay from Betelnut, are not at all gamey but clean, savory.
A wise move at the short-lived Hutong, one I wish more restaurants would embrace, is offering four salads ($8.88) that couldn’t be labeled “throwaway”, but boast interesting combinations beyond being merely nutritious. Roasted beets derived texture from cardamom yogurt, contrasted by salted plum vinaigrette, while the now ubiquitous kale salad arrived with Asian pears, cucumbers, roasted peppers, avocado in a bright lime-mustard dressing.
Hutong was still finding its footing with some misses (overly sweet cocktails, for one), but it seems rather than continuing to find ways to stay fresh and age into a new decade, they are reverting back to the past one.
NABE, Inner Sunset (1325 9th Ave. between Irving & Judah; 415-731-2658)
Another hot pot outpost, Nabe (its name derived from nabemono – pronounced “nay-bay-mo-no” – referring to nabe cooking pot/hot pot) is a Zen-yet-hip space lined with empty sake bottles, benefiting from sweet service and sustainably sourced Snake River Farms meat.
To start, Kurobuta pork gyoza ($7) are pan-seared dumplings exhibiting the right contrast of crispy and chewy, dipped in chili ponzu. A nabemono set ($19 regular/$24 large) comes with choice of meat, udon noodles and generous, assorted vegetables. I like shabu shabu choices of Washugyu beef or Kurobuta Berkshire pork in spicy miso broth – there’s also seafood (shrimp, salmon, scallops, clams) in dashi broth.
The crowning moment of this interactive dinner is included: a traditional Japanese finish to hot pot/shabu shabu as our server explained, rarely seen in the States. Our server removed excess broth from our finished hot pot, retaining just enough for flavor. She then filled it with rice, stirred slowly, cracked an egg in it, stirred awhile longer, then topping with shaved nori (seaweed). It’s called zosui, a rice soup/porridge akin to Chinese congee (or jook) but with more flavor. As breakfast the next morning, it was perfection – I stir fried the leftover zosui with more egg.
SSISSO, Japantown (1700 Post St. at Buchanan, 415-441-1522)
In soft opening mode merely a couple months, Ssisso (Korean word for “seesaw”) is still sorting things out. With traditional and non-traditional Korean dishes, plus cult classic Frozen Kuhsterd for dessert, one can’t help comparing to other local Korean joints. Haemul pajeon ($9.95, $12.95), the ever addictive seafood pancake that turned me on to Korean food as a teen in NY, is gratifyingly (but not overly) greasy and crisp here, though I prefer versions at restaurants like Manna in the Inner Sunset.
Similarly, I think of Aato’s japchae – sweet potato noodles stir fried with beef, soy, onion – when trying Ssisso’s one-note (salty) version ($9.95 lunch, $13.95 dinner). Early on, the best dish remains one from downstairs karaoke lounge, Playground: fried Ssisso chicken ($9.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner), a superior pile of wings doused in sweet soy and loads of garlic. Put a plate in front of me and I’ll devour.