Hawker Fare is Chef James Syhabout’s San Francisco outpost of his now-shuttered Oakland restaurant. I’d been to the Oakland place, as well as to his upscale, tweezer-food restaurant — Commis — in Piedmont. His restaurants could not be more different.
While Commis presents refined, restrained, gorgeous (and outstandingly delicious) food, Hawker Fare’s dishes are like an exotic cousin, with sultry flavors that ping hot, sweet, salty and everything in between. The East Bay Hawker Fare was tiny, with fewer items on the menu. The new place makes it feel like Syhabout came to the Mission and just cut loose.
And not just with regard to the food. The place is huge, with riotous décor — a dazzling cacophony of colors and shiny surfaces, bright oilcloth-topped tables, red folding chairs, Thai movie posters that border on kitsch — a hyper-cool Pulp Fiction, for instance — softened up by the giant textiles on the stairway wall.
I’d been to Hawker Fare’s Mission storefront maybe four or five times, but these last two visits of what is billed as Thai/Isaan/Laotian street food have been simply eye-opening.
We started out with the beer nuts, which you must do as well. They’re roasted with makrut (also known as kaffir) lime leaves, chilies, garlic and salt — addictive.
I’m not one for cutesy drinks, but when in a tiki bar … The great thing about Hawker Fare’s Polynesian-style cocktails is that they’re not simperingly sweet. They’re boozy and refreshing, and go really well with the (at times/hopefully) spicy food. There’s a full bar, so you can order any non-exotic thing you want to, as well as beer and wine. The little blue macaw treat pictured above is called the Feathered Serpent, featuring mezcal, Cocchi Americano, creme de cacao, coconut rum, lemon juice and grapefruit juice. Surprisingly, not too sweet!
Next, we split the som tum (green papaya) salad:
It was, thankfully, a spicier version than others we’ve had, but still not very hot. Chopped Thai chilies on the side, upon request, fixed us right up. Hey, sometimes food has to hurt. Hawker Fare also has a Laotian version, for the slightly braver of you, with salted crab, fermented fish and more chilies. I’ve had it once and it does pull its weight in both funk and heat.
For his main, the BF got the pork belly and tofu in a caramel broth:
This is a bowl to dive into and die happy. Lovely fatty bits of pork, chunks of tofu that almost trick you into thinking they’re pork (but doesn’t piss you off when you find out it’s not), all swimming in a rich caramel-colored, anise-tinged broth, offset by fermented mustard greens, Chinese celery and cilantro, with a beautiful, mahogany-stained, slightly runny boiled egg. Earthy, hearty, life-affirming.
I got the beef short ribs (think kalbi) in a satay prep, with the bones acting as “natural skewers”:
Goddess help me, this was almost better than the pork belly. Touted as Syhabout’s mother’s recipe, there was just so much beefiness going on here: chewy, grilled meat marinated in coconut milk, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, and his own mama’s love. How could it not be good?
There are three kinds of rice to choose from — jasmine, sticky and chicken fat (khao mun). We opted for the chicken fat version, but I have to say, with most of these dishes, the subtleties of the rice escaped me. But it did the job just fine.
Speaking of rice, on our return trip, we started out with the crispy rice ball salad.
A knock-out of a dish. Jasmine rice is seasoned with coconut and red curry paste and formed into balls. They fry them up then break them apart, and the crispy, crunchy rice bits are scattered amongst every eye-popping flavor and texture known to mankind — fermented pork, peanuts, cilantro, dried Thai chilies, fish sauce and lime juice. You must get this Laotian specialty. You must. They make it with or without pork, but I think you know what to do.
Next up, we had their super-garlicky Brussels sprouts:
These beauties were bursting with umami-osity. Another winner.
We shared the BBQ pork ribs:
Delectable baby backs, marinated in whiskey, white pepper, coriander root and garlic and brushed with honey. Smoky, chewy and sweet, with perfect charring, echoed by the charred tomato-chili dip served alongside. They really do meat well here.
Finally, we had a bowl of lovely, very mild (not a bit spicy, as the menu says), yet still super-flavorful vermicelli noodles with ground pork in red curry and fresh bamboo shoots:
At least I think they were fresh, since they were nothing like those awful canned shoots. These were super funky, but in a really good way. The dish’s textures were soothing; comfort food at its most flavorful. The BF did not love this dish, but I adored it, and it made divine lunches for the next couple of days as the flavors married even further.
The menu does change periodically, so go often. They are no longer making one of my favorite dishes, a salad of crunchy celery leaves and tomatoes with a super crispy, lacy fried egg. I’m hoping they’ll bring it back someday, but whatever they make is golden. I’ve had their spicy, sticky fried chicken and would like to have no other from now on, please. There is a homey, yet playful, touch to these dishes.
Another fun feature about Hawker Fare is the “secret” bar upstairs — Holy Mountain, specializing in craft cocktails in a dimly lit, swanky space, with sleek glasses and designer ice cubes. It feels a bit like a private club, but everyone’s allowed. Booze it up a little upstairs and then come down and eat something spicy to sober you up again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
680 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110