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Hawker Fare Expands to Valencia and Shows What Thai Food Can Be 

Wednesday, Mar 4 2015
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Blam! You're hit by a burst of fish sauce. Zap! Chili paste asserts its fiery presence. Kapow! Lime juice socks you in the taste buds. To eat at the new Hawker Fare on Valencia, an outpost of the popular Oakland Thai street food spot from restauranteur James Syhabout, is to submit to a vivid assault on your senses. This is bold food, not for the faint of palate, but you shouldn't let that be a deterrent. From its bombastic flavors to its colorful dining room, the restaurant is also a lot of fun.

Hawker Fare is named for the bright outdoor markets of Singapore, and its menu features restaurant translations of the food that people eat on the streets of Thailand. A lot of the dishes don't look like much, often just a pile of meat on a tin plate accompanied by a dipping sauce. But what dipping sauces they are, zippy and striking and full of fish sauce, chili, citrus, lemongrass, and other bright Thai flavors, and the meats themselves are deeply smoky and charred on the grill. Eaten on their own or nestled with a little bit of sticky rice, plates like grilled pork, brisket, and short ribs offer much more than their appearance suggests.

This is the kind of food that tastes best outdoors, of course, and the lively dining room tries valiantly to re-create that experience. This cavernous space used to house Amber Dhara, and because of its size, has the tendency to feel empty even when it's half-full. Syhabout and team smartly combated the hugeness by separating the bar and dining room, breaking the room up with strings of cafe lights above the tables and an attractively rusting tin roof over the bar, and building a separate "secret" bar up the stairs from the dining room. (The Holy Mountain, as it's called, just opened last week, and offers a separate cocktail menu with some bar bites.) The decor is fun, too: oilcloths on the tables, red folding chairs, Thai LP and movie posters featuring Back to the Future and other Millennial favorites on the walls next to collages of traditional woven floor mats.

Fish sauce is the first thing you smell when you walk in the door, and its presence in Hawker Fare's dishes isn't a detriment. Syhabout has proven to be smart with bar snacks at his restaurants ­— I've previously enthused about the Caesar salad popcorn at The Dock at Linden Street and the pepperoni-spiced almonds at the recently shuttered Box & Bells­ — and the treat here, imported from Oakland, is the peanuts coated with chiles, lime leaves, fish sauce, and plenty of salt. They wake you up on the first bite and prepare the palate for what happens next.

The nuts are meant to accompany drinks, and the cocktail menu is more or less Tiki drinks, though not as sweet. The creamy Pop Skull is a blend of Jamaican and white rums, creme of coconut, guava nectar, lime cordial, and grapefruit juice, while the more herbal Pago Pago throws together gold rum, pineapple juice, green chartreuse, lime juice, and crème de cacao. They're fine on their own, but hum when the food starts arriving and you finally understand the purpose of the Tiki drink: to put out the fire that's raging in your mouth. If you have a group, the thing to get is the bottle service, about six shots of rumlike Thai whiskey with a few bottles of TopoChico soda water for $35, to make long, cool drinks that fit in with the place's casual feel.

Many of the dishes are more challenging than most restaurants­— and certainly 99 percent of Thai restaurants ­— usually serve. Whole grilled shrimp, heads still on, taste smoky from the grill and are served with a lemony nam prik dipping sauce that brings out the faint oceanic flavor of the shrimp. And the beef tartare is a gnarly mix of tripe, shallots, mint, and beef bile that lends a mysterious, deeply funky, and compellingly bitter element to the dish. Catfish jungle curry is dark, complexly spicy, and addictive.

There are also plenty of "safer" dishes that still pack a punch: lemongrass-scented housemade sausages served with fried pork skins, a boneless fried chicken bar snack, a spicy squid salad, and a beautiful rendition of khao mun gai, poached chicken served with a gingery dipping sauce and chicken fat rice (which is also recommended on its own).

Prices are reasonable for Valencia 2015 — nothing above $17 — but the portions make it easy to rack up a big bill in a hurry. And the food comes out almost immediately after ordering, which is appealing in a certain way, but makes it hard to stage a long, leisurely feast without ordering more.

I'll be back to Hawker Fare just the same, if only because it's transportive in the way that many restaurants try to be, but so few are. "Let's all go to Thailand," a friend suggested a bit dreamily at the end of one meal as we sat at the table, satiated and happy, the whiskey drunk, the plates just dribbles of meat juice and dipping sauces. At that moment, under the cafe lights, it felt almost as though we were already there.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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