Monday, November 06, 2006

Restaurant Review: Betelnut: Fusion Food that's Not Confusing

Down on San Francisco’s trendy Union Street there’s a fairly well-known restaurant called Betelnut. Since the place is roughly 400 yards from my house, I have been there close to a dozen times. It’s supposedly former President Bill Clinton’s favorite SF eatery, and I know for a fact he has been there several times in the past couple of years. And no, he didn’t bring Jennifer Flowers or Monica Lewinsky with him, either. Betelnut is modeled after a “pejiu wu”, which in Chinese means “beer house.” The cuisine is described as Asian “street food”. It tends to a little spicier than your standard Asian faire, using primarily fresh local ingredients and regional spices. I like it because the food is a mixture of just about every type of Asian cuisine – including Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Malaysian. A lot of fusion food is gimmicky and just doesn’t work. I had American Indian/Mexican food one time, and it was so bad I lost it in both my head dress and my sombrero. One time I had Italian/Eastern Indian food, and that was pretty awful as well. Chicken Tandoori Pizza isn’t my idea of creative food – it’s my version of a gastronomic nightmare. Dick Cavett used to do an old joke where he talked about eating German/Chinese food one night and being hungry for power 15 minutes later. But the fusion food at Betelnut works, because the basic building blocks of all the cuisines that are being combined are basically the same. The chef is Alexander Ong, a highly regarded food artist who worked for the Shangrai-La Hotel and at the Caesar’s Tahoe Ritz-Carlton before venturing to SF to do his magic at Betelnut. Consistently in the SF Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants, this place is fun from the minute you walk in the door. The motif is dark wood with bright red accents. Kind of like Chinatown meets a Montana hunting lodge. Betelnut has a wide assortment of exotic drinks and features a lineup of custom-brewed lagers and ales that the Pyramid Brewery makes just for them. For $6.00 a pint, the beer is just as good or better than any micro brewery I’ve been to. My favorite dishes at Betelnut all come on small plates and will serve three people each. I love the Pork Springrolls with “Wood Ear” Mushrooms, Glass Noodles and Szechuan Mustard ($8.50). The mustard alone is worth this one. It’s a mixture of hot mustard with something sweet and tart in it that hits your palate with a gentle ferocity. I also like the Nonya Oyster Omelet with Kecap Manis and Spicy Lime Pepper Dip ($9.85). The oysters are so fresh and buttery you’ll think they are still alive. Putting them in a fluffy omelet with this incredible sauce is pure genius. The Firecracker Shrimp with a 5-Spice Sambal Dip ($9.99) is worth every cent. They’re spicy but not tongue-searing hot, and they bounce off your tongue with an elasticity that is pleasant and not too tough. The Hand-Pulled Mongolian Hoison Pork with Grilled Pancakes ($9.95) is like high-end Asian burritos and a lot of fun to eat. What makes this work is that the pork is super tender and full of flavor. One disappointment was the Satay-O-Chicken with Malaysian Peanut Sauce ($8.25). When I go to a place like Betelnut I expect new and exciting things and this was just run-of-the-mill satay that you might find in 200+ other restaurants in the City. It just wasn’t unique enough. Betelnut is located at 2030 Union Street in SF and their phone number is: (415) 929-8855. They’re open every day for both lunch and dinner, but I would strongly suggest making reservations if you want to go there during the weekend.
If you see Bill there sans Hilary, maybe you can interest him in an after-dinner cigar. After consuming this great food, he might just be in the mood.

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