SF’s food scene is teeming with exorbitantly priced, highly styled restaurants that turn eating from a simple pleasure into a production.
It’s a route chef Tracey Goh could have taken with her first brick-and-mortar restaurant Damansara, fetching top dollar for her comforting laksas and bright satays. But the proprietress of the wildly popular Malaysian pop-ups that have been feeding the city for almost a decade opted for a more accessible approach, instead.
From the uncomplicated, low-key space with an open kitchen in Noe Valley, the La Cocina alum crafts food that is anything but—with prices so low, they’re almost criminal (for San Francisco, at least).
Damansara chef-owner, Tracy Goh.(Courtesy of @damansarasf)
Damansara is already half full when I get there shortly after it opens at 5pm on a Saturday. The deep, rich scent of Southeast Asian spices and herbs embraces me at the door. Like a hungry cartoon character, I let it pull me through the restaurant and deposit me gently at my table.
I map a route through the carefully curated menu of small and full-size plates. The “best greens” arrive first, crisp Asian broccoli drizzled in onion-oyster sauce and fried garlic. The name is no exaggeration. The dish is beautifully balanced, the topping savory and delightfully pungent, the stalks fresh and vividly vegetal.
The achar awak with tofu is a completely different mood. With turmeric pickled vegetables, pineapple, and crushed peanuts mixed with fried silken tofu, the dish is sweet-and-sour tangy and bright as the sun.
Nasi lemak at Damansara.(Aron Pruiett)
From the deck of three full-size dishes, I draw the vegan laksa (there’s also a shrimp and chicken version) made with rice noodles, mushrooms, pulled tofu, and veggies. It takes Goh two days to make the hearty broth from a combination of kelp, shiitake, coconut milk, coriander, and other spices and aromatics. A fiery sambal is delivered on the side. It’s deliciously comforting, full of warm flavors with a crackle of heat.
In between bites, I keep my eye on the other dishes filing out of the kitchen. The cereal and salted egg fried chicken, which is served both as a small plate and as part of the full-size nasi lemak meal, is so plump and golden brown it looks like it jumped out of the pages of a magazine. I kick myself for not ordering the otak otak muar, a Johor-style spiced coconut fish paste grilled in banana leaves.
For dessert I choose the bingka ubi, a sticky pudding made with cassava and coconut and topped with a thin layer of caramelized sugar à la crème brûlée. I fall in love at first bite.
Although Damansara does not have a liquor license, their drinks menu is well stocked with a dozen bottles (and glasses) of wine, several varieties of sake and beer, and soju cocktails spiked with Southeast Asian flavors.
For now, Damansara is keeping things casual with a no-reservation policy. They’ve also opted to ditch takeout and delivery for dine-in meals only. The only way to get a seat is to wait and, trust me, it’s worth it. Luckily the Tock walk-in wait list will keep you from having to stand too long in the cold.
// Damansara is open 5-9pm, Wednesday through Sunday; 1781 Church St. (Noe Valley), damansarasf.com.
Cassava bingka ubi at Damansara(Courtesy of @damansarasf)