There is not much I can actually claim to know anything about, but given my Southeast Asian heritage—and the fact that I spent the majority of my 20s traveling the backpacker circuit through that part of the world—I feel confident about my knowledge and familiarity with the cuisines of the region. So when Michelin-starred chef James Syhabout recently opened the second outpost of his Thai street-food eatery Hawker Fare in the Valencia Street corridor, we summoned a First World tuk-tuk (aka an Uber) to whisk us there, stat. No reason to keep nostalgia waiting.
Designed to evoke the lively night markets in Thailand, the tables are draped in colorful oil cloths and the walls are layered with the patterned floor mats seen in every Thai home. Red metal folding chairs are charming in a this-is-how-they-do-it-over-there kind of way, but the no-frills seating made me wonder just how transportive the dining experience is meant to be: We’re not actually in Bangkok, after all, and yet we’re willing to pay 10x (or more!) the going rate for street food. So maybe throw a little cushion on the chair?
Since the food comes out of the kitchen at lightning speed, actual consumption is just as swift, which adds to the adventurousness of the experience. We started with the som tom lao, a Laotian-style green papaya salad with salted black crab, fish sauce, lime, and plenty of kick from dried chiles. The salad was practically swimming in its spicy dressing, which felt like a haphazard preparation—again, true to its exotic origins, but I expect a bit more refinement for the price. Even my neighborhood mom-and-pop Thai joint makes a better presentation. To extinguish the fire, we sipped on a puckeringly refreshing rum cocktail called Dr. Wong.
We also enjoyed the satay beef neau, grilled short ribs that have been marinated in coconut milk. Nothing brings me back to childhood like grilled meat paired with rice, and at Hawker Fare, the chicken fat rice is the bowl of choice. It also makes a savory sopper-upper to the true star of the evening, a super funky, earthy-to-the-max, graphite-colored stew of bamboo, wood-ear mushrooms, and whole hard-boiled quail eggs, the yolks of which add richness to an otherwise brothy brew. You don’t know why you like it, or even if you like it, but you can’t stop eating it. Barring this kind of tastebud-brain confusion, the soul-satisfying quotient of this concoction is off the charts.
My father loves to make halo-halo, a traditional Filipino kitchen-sink dessert made with shave ice, sweet beans, ice cream, sweetened condensed milk, fresh coconut, and whatever else you think might taste good. The Hawker Fare version is similar, with coconut sorbet, condensed milk, boiled peanuts, and adzuki beans. I loved the flavors, but wished the ice was snowier. Having spent years of my life rigged up in orthodontics, crunching ice chips the size of betrothal-worthy diamonds is not how I want to reverse all of that good dentistry.
Due to the expediency of the meal (we clocked 25 minutes!), I discovered that I missed the lingering dining experience. To loiter a little longer would have meant ordering more spendy food. We were still hungry, after all. Were the prices on par with street food in Bangkok (everything else is quite evocative—from the full-on flavors to the clanky, two-bit enamelware to the aforementioned breakneck service), staying awhile might have worked out. Don't get me wrong, I understand about the price of doing business in this city. I understand that Hawker Fare ingredients are higher end, and the recipes have been gourmetified. I understand that those costs must be passed onto the consumer. But there's no sugar-coating the fact that Hawker Fare tabs run high rather quickly, sooner than you can hit the satiation point, and before you know it, you’re a few doors down at Craftsman & Wolves, latte in hand, chocolate chip cookie on deck, in maximum lingering mode.
Hawker Fare: 680 Valencia (at 18th Street), SF, 415-400-5699 (also located in Oakland at 2300 Webster [at 23rd Street]; 510.832.8896)