This summer marks the long-awaited return of celebrated Malaysian chef Azalina Eusope to the San Francisco restaurant scene.
With a focus on the homestyle dishes and street foods of the Mamak ethnic group, Eusope’s newest restaurant Azalina’s is a brilliant, beckoning light. Inside, under a cloud of handmade kites and a color-drenched Malaysian streetscape that draws the eye like the sun through the fog, Southeast Asia feels almost within reach.
Some of Azalina's decor includes items from the chef's own kitchen and photos from the streets of the Tenderloin. (Courtesy of Brianna Danner/a&fco)
It wasn’t long ago that Eusope was a straight-up boss, with two restaurants, a food truck, a line of condiments, and other food-centric projects to her name. But the pandemic had other plans for the chef. At its start, Eusope was not only forced to close both of her restaurants, a fast-casual spot in the (former) Twitter food hall and the upscale restaurant Mahila in Noe Valley, she was ousted from the massive Bayview commercial kitchen where she toiled over sambals and peanut sauces for sale online and at retailers like Bi-Rite, Rainbow Grocery, and Berkeley Bowl.
But Eusope, who grew up a fifth-generation street food vendor on the island of Penang, is resilient. She retreated to the small space she’d obtained as a commissary kitchen in the Tenderloin in 2018 and turned it into a new center of operations for her handmade products. Finally, five years later, she was ready to dip her toe back into the restaurant industry. Over the last several months, she’s transformed the kitchen into a restaurant as homey and joyful as the food she prepares in it.
Azalina’s isn’t like her previous restaurants. To really invest in the complexity of each and every dish, Eusope narrowed the scope of her menu to a set four-course meal that includes one non-alcoholic drink and a choice of beer or wine for $100 (a two-course version is also available at the bar and accommodations are available for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free diners with advance notice). But don’t expect the pomp and flash of other multi-course restaurants; Azalina’s leans more cozy home-cooked meal than glittering chef showcase.
Like a film that snaps you to attention from its first scene, Azalina’s hooks me with my first bite of char koay kak, a dish of wok-charred turnip cakes, preserved radish, sweet chili sambal, and fried egg. Like fried gnocchi, the turnip cakes melt in my mouth, the sweet-hot sambal a gorgeous complement to their savory saltiness. Between bites, I sip from the effervescence of a freshly juiced watermelon and lychee soda.
The salad course features Azalina’s famous pineapple tea dressing (which she also sells in retail form), a tart and herbaceous topping for chunks of pink pineapple, baby kale, mint, cucumber, and radish. It’s a good segue to the main entree, nasi dagang, a plate packed with a variety of precisely prepared components inspired by the meals served at Malaysian weddings. Every element—the meaty local halibut and its flavor-punching turmeric crust; the rich, heat-packing okra-tomato-coconut-milk curry; the tangy pickled eggplant achar—is as delightful on its own as it is mixed-and-matched with its neighbors.
Finally, we arrive at dessert, a delicious classic halwa kesari topped with roasted pistachio, candied ginger, saffron, and seasonal stone fruits. Like a cousin of both carrot cake and bread pudding, it is slightly gooey and just sweet enough to satisfy. A surprise second dessert, a compote-like berry granita with champagne-colored cubes of chrysanthemum jelly, is a tart contrast to the comforting halwa.
From start to finish, the meal is exceptional. It is also ephemeral. Each menu will be offered for only about three weeks before Eusope remakes it anew with her reinterpretation of classic Malaysian dishes.
Given the quality of her food and the name recognition she’s worked so hard to achieve, Azalina’s should be packed every night. But its location at the heart of the Tenderloin has its challenges, not the least of which is getting San Franciscans to return to the gutted center of the city.
So, until the word really gets out, Azalina’s has the feel of a secret hideout, a hidden sanctum in an otherwise bleak culinary landscape. But it won’t for long. Because even if you haven’t set foot in the Tenderloin in years, the pleasure of Eusope’s cooking is a magnetizing force that simply cannot be ignored.
For the doyenne of Malaysian cooking, there’s no journey too great.
// Azalina’s is open 4pm to 10pm Thursday to Sunday; 499 Ellis St. (Tenderloin), azalinas.com.
(Courtesy of Brianna Danner/a&fco)