Betelnut has outlived almost every restaurant on the yuppy-laden Union Street of San Francisco, which is quite impressive considering the area’s rapid turnover rate. Now that I’m an adult, the dark, sultry restaurant no longer exists as a mystery to me, and I now frequent this place for festive dinners with tropical cocktails and family style pan-asian fare. Last week, I met 7 of my local SF friends here, and expecting a standard white person’s interpretation of an Asian meal, I left totally impressed by Betelnut’s respect for traditional eastern flavors and undeniably delicious food.
After downing a rum-filled “Scorpion bowl” with 2 foot straws, we ordered a series of appetizers to share: chicken satay, shrimp dumplings, vegetarian dumplings, and Cecilia’s chicken-lettuce cups. Everything was delicious, but the chicken lettuce cups, served as a heaping of chopped sautéed garlicky chicken aside fresh, crisp lettuce leaves, stole the show.
The vegetarian dumplings, which consisted of tofu, pea shoots, and fried challots beautifully wrapped in a thin chewy wonton had deep, earthy flavors that would even cater to meat-eaters. The soy-broth surrounding the shrimp dumplings was subtly buttery and delicious on its own.
The success of our first round of food inspired us to order much more than we needed, but I have no regrets. The Penang Rice Noodles with large cunks of buttery, soy sauced crab mimicked the flavors of delicious Benihannah fried rice. The duck noodles also had generous portions of meat, and with thin, short glass rice noodles, I felt like I was eating my mother’s famous pancit.
We also passed around chunks of crispy firecracker chicken with almonds and scallions, “Beggar’s” chicken, deliciously crunchy vegetable wood-ear mushroom springrolls with a creamy mustard sauce, and garlic sautéed string beans that wowed us all.
The claypot chicken was probably my least favorite in terms of notable flavors, but it provided good entertainment value – my friend Stacy, who was closest to our waitress, was tasked with breaking the clay surrounding the chicken with what looked like a sledge hammer.
Although some could consider Betelnut on the pricier side for a city filled with incredible (and cheap) Asian food, portion sizes were perfect, service was attentive, dishes were creatively presented, and the food was nothing short of delicious. Though each dish stood on its own, their mutual garlicky, spicy, and vinegary flavors united them into one perfectly well rounded meal.
My assumption that Betelnut has survived the critical San Francisco food audience purely because of legacy is totally wrong. With high quality food and an incredible cocktail menu, it has rightfully earned its permanent spot on Union Street, and the day it’s gone we’ll know that there has been a serious shift in the taste buds of the city’s population.
Location: Union and Buchanan Street
*pictures via Yelp.com and Flickr