Laos, the birthplace of chef James Syhabout, is a landlocked country bordered by Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The food at Hawker Fare can be mistaken for Thai, but it is Laotian, food that Syhabout grew up with. The flavors are different from those at American Thai restaurants. They are more savory and definitely spicy.
European-trained Syhabout has a distinguished Bay-Area pedigree, including a stint as chef de cuisine at Manresa and opening the only two-star Michelin restaurant in the East Bay, Commis. He has also just released his first cookbook Hawker Fare, and his appearance on morning television to promote this book is what prompted us to go with AJ and our family friend, Sarah. We’ve been there several times before, but the last time was well before I started this blog.
Ken and I entered the restaurant from the wet and cold to find AJ and Sarah already enjoying after-work cocktails at the table. I always appreciate being seated even though the entire party hasn’t arrived, especially when the temperature dips. The place was mostly empty when we arrived, but it was early and the weather was inclement. By the time we left, the tables were starting to fill up.
There is a bar above the restaurant which we haven’t tried but the featured cocktails were strong and delicious. Sarah had the Neptune’s Locks with gin, while Ken, AJ and I had the Scorpion Bowl because we like bourbon.
In the last year or two, I have reached a point in my life where I need my eyeglasses to read the menus in the many dimly lit restaurants we visit. Often, I forget to bring them, as I did this evening, so Ken and I let AJ and Sarah do the ordering. They did a great job.
The blistered green beans are made from Syhabout’s mother’s original recipe. The dish was surprisingly tangy and the beans were cooked perfectly. Often, green beans can be either undercooked and too tough or overcooked and too mushy, but these were just right.
When I was starting to write this, I had a hard time figuring out which dish was the crispy rice ball SALAD. I remembered AJ ordering the menu item but I couldn’t place it. That’s because the rice is seasoned with coconut meat and red curry paste, formed into balls, fried, broken apart and finally tossed with other ingredients. What a lovely way to have a salad! I thought it was a fried rice.
My favorite was the boneless batter-fried chicken thighs, but then fried chicken may be my favorite food at any restaurant. This was very savory and spicy, like fried chicken for grown-ups.
The dishes are generally small-plate sized and meant to be shared. Just to be sure we had enough, we ordered the Hainanese style chicken and rice, which was good but basic. Chicken and rice must be popular these days because next week, I’ll be writing about the same dish we had at Son’s Addition.
The Angus beef shortribs were good, but the accompanying peanut sauce made them especially good. These not-spicy small ribs were a nice relief from the heat of the rest of the food.
Generally, I think of this kind of fare on warm days, but it was perfect to chase the chill from my bones and warm up my insides. Because we were early and the restaurant wasn’t full, we had a lovely dinner and could actually chat. We’ve been there when the restaurant was busier and all the hard surfaces can make it hard to hear your dinner companions, but the buzz does create a fun and vibrant place to enjoy a meal full of flavor that you won’t get at the usual Asian or Thai restaurants down the block.
Hawker Fare: 680 Valencia, San Francisco. Tiki Hour Monday to Thursday 5:30 – 7:30pm. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 – 10pm, Friday 5:30 – 11pm.