Man, that poor ~BETELNUT~ has had a tumultuous year, like it wants to get on the cover of the Enquirer or something. After 18 years in business—12 of them with the very talented chef Alex Ong at the helm—the restaurant recently went through some sweeping changes, including a short switch to the Hutong/street food concept. When everyone went bonkers, it hastily flipped back to Betelnut six weeks later. Soon after, chef Ong departed. Oof.
The new chef steadying the boat is Mario Tolentino. He has worked locally with Michael Mina and Laurent Manrique, and was the chef at Juliet Supper Club in New York, focused on international street food. Some may recognize him from his victorious 2010 appearance on the Food Network’s Chopped. While he may not have Ong’s sensei-like knowledge of Malaysian cooking, Tolentino has very good technique, creativity with ingredients, and definitely has a passion that can bring Betelnut into its next era. He’s keeping the focus on Southeast Asia but is adding touches of refinement and lightening things up.
Tolentino knows the loyal Betelnut audience wants their goddamn Szechuan green beans and Cecilia’s minced chicken lettuce cups, goddamn it, so you’ll find those in the new Classics section on the menu. Goddamn. But let’s focus on the new dishes, shall we? The Snacks section of the menu is full of many of my new faves, including the deeply flavorful char siu pork spring rolls ($10.75), a must-order. A lot of work goes into these bad boys: The kitchen marinates boneless pork butt for 24 hours in 12 ingredients, and then cooks it for 50 minutes, constantly basting the pork to create a candy-like exterior, and then the meat gets all chopped up. Some rice vermicelli noodles take a dunk in the drippings, and join some wood ear mushrooms, hon shimeji, Thai basil, and cilantro for the filling. You wrap that fried little number in some lettuce, dunk it into the housemade Malaysian-style peanut sauce (which features a hit of tamarind), and you now have a new thing to obsess over on the menu. Seriously.
The green curry shrimp and sausage corn dogs ($4.95 each) are fricking awesome; what a perfect bar snack. Get ‘em. There are damn tasty sliders on the menu ($10.88 for two), including one version with coconut-curry braised lamb belly that the kitchen painstakingly separates from the fat, chops up, and serves on silver dollar buns with pickled cabbage. Juicy and dirty, in just the right way. Another slider special featured Issan pork belly with jasmine rice, lemongrass, ginger, Kaffir lime, spicy pickled cabbage, and Szechuan mustard. Flavor fireworks. Don’t make me choose which one I liked best.
While the chicken wings ($9.88) are an inherited classic on the menu, these grilled (not fried, which I think they should note on the menu), meaty wings are superlative. They’re brined for 24 hours, then marinated, and made Pok Pok style (cooked, dressed in sauce, then grilled, then sauced and grilled again). Lather. Rinse. Repeat. You get a pile of them, thank God, because you will want to eat them like you’re the Cookie Monster (me want wings!). They’re so savory that you almost don’t even need the side sambal and Sriracha sauces (unless you want extra fi-yah, of course).
Some of the more refined dishes on the menu include the Japanese hamachi sashimi ($13.88), thinly sliced onto an avocado purée, with sliced lychee, pickled Thai chile (the pickling keeps the heat in check), plus a bass note from the fermented black garlic oil and texture from the puffed salmon skin. It’s a fantastic dish, one you could expect to find on a finer dining menu.
The beet salad ($9.88) is also contemporary and a bit pinkie-up: Gorgeous baby red and golden roasted beets are paired with fresh hearts of palm, upland cress, and served on miso dressing with a cardamom crumble (Tolentino toasts coriander, and then adds Korean chile flakes, cinnamon, salt, sugar, and butter). It’s brill. (I had it twice in my three visits.)
While the sashimi and beets appear more polished, Tolentino gets playful with the lemongrass pork ($18.88). The pork is marinated for two days, and then hickory-smoked for 14 hours, and then handpicked and served like fajitas on an iron skillet, with sides like Asian-style guacamole with sliced radish and pickled Thai chiles, green curry Brentwood corn with confit shallots, and spicy pickled cabbage with lime. Great sides. I laughed when I saw the corn tortillas in the Asian steamer—it’s like eating at a Mexican restaurant in Malaysia. My table demolished this dish. Family-style dining at its best.
The green papaya salad ($9.95) tastes fresh and balanced, but is quite a bit more garlicky than I remember (just take note of this in case you’re on a date, which a lot of the people in the restaurant are).
The menu also dips its toe into some serious Szechuan waters with the new five-chile chicken ($17.88), a basketful of tender chicken fried in cornstarch and rice flour so it’s not too heavily battered, with sinus-clearing and lip-numbing chiles (including Fresno and Szechuan peppercorn). Only a masochist will eat the dried chiles—they use some hot ones here, beware. Ask me how I know….
While Tolentino and his kitchen crew are ramping up, not all dishes are successful (to be expected). The team is trying to get some dumplings back on the menu, and the brand-new ones we tried one night definitely needed more R&D. I also remember loving the noodle dishes more in the past. While the five-spice wild boar noodles ($13.75) are fine, it’s hard to wipe the M.Y. China version with the handmade scissor-cut noodles out of my mind as my benchmark.
Desserts have gotten really good, from the pineapple “snow” ($8.88) with young coconut gelée, lychee, chia seed syrup, and micro basil, to the black sesame ice cream ($8.88) with red miso caramel and crushed kaffir lime peanut brittle.
Betelnut always works for a bunch of occasions, from catching up with a friend over a couple of drinks (try the new basil gimlet and the rye cocktail) and some small plates, to a full-on group dinner with friends with various likes and dietary needs (there’s a gluten-free menu for those who need it). The crowd is always eclectic, spanning all age groups and ethnicities. The attentive service can border on the utterly amazing—our server one night knew every dish with such detail, I was floored, although another server pulled a few looooong disappearances on us when it was time to go.
I do wish they would dim the lights. The booths in the back with the overhead lights make me feel like it’s an inquisition in a Malaysian airport (I swear, the black tar in my suitcase wasn’t mine!), and the front room flanking the kitchen is just flooded with light. My dining cohort doesn’t need to inspect my pores, thanks. The wine list could also stand to have some unique and esoteric selections on there (and how about a rosé?) for those of us who want to explore—I think it would complement the direction the kitchen is going nicely.
- 2030 Union St. San Francisco