Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Secret Menu at Betelnut

Offal Dishes Highlight Home-style Malaysian Cuisine
2030 Union St. (at Buchanan), San Francisco
Cow Hollow
PH: 415.929.8855
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (till midnight on Friday and Saturday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

I recently got a Blackboard Eats membership, which is a food site that offers up limited discounts at restaurants around San Francisco. But one of the first deals that I took advantage of wasn’t a discount but a special all-access-pass to a secret menu at the consistently popular Betelnut.

I recruited my fellow blogger friend Foodhoe, who’s the only person I know who will travel by bus in the rain across town to try out an offal menu, as we met for dinner on Tuesday. Foodhoe was running late because of the rain, so I waited at the bar and ordered up a Singaporean Sling – the touristy drink made up gin and cherry herring. The drink came out looking red just like the walls serving as backdrop to the 1940s Shanghai décor.

It’s been a long time since I last visited Betelnut, but the bar still had the mechanical bamboo fans playing up the tropical vibe of Southeast Asia. The open kitchen seems new to me, offering up a view of the kitchen staff firing up the specialties.

When Foodhoe arrived, we settled into our table and started to strategize about the secret menu. The Blackboard Eats special allows members to order from an offal menu designed by Chef Alex Ong, who offered four items that were influenced by his Malaysian childhood.

I convinced Foodhoe to skip the crispy chicken liver because the dish was deep-fried, after I confirmed it with the server. (I’m not a fan of deep-fried dishes.) So we decided to go with the salt-and-pepper veal sweetbread ($12.88) because I love sweetbreads and I thought they would be prepared pan-fried like I’ve seen at other restaurants.

The dish, however, was also deep-fried and Foodhoe and I thought it was odd that the server didn’t warn me after I made such a big deal about not ordering the chicken livers. Anywho, I did try just a few pieces of the sweetbreads (I know it won’t kill me). The pieces were like little fried nuggets, smaller than most sweetbreads (the glands of veal), and it was simply served with chopped chile and scallions.

Even though it was simple, and the deep-fried aspect took away any moisture of the sweetbreads, I did enjoy the salt-and-pepper spice with the chile and declared (yes, I make lots of declarations as I eat) that this would be a popular street food item to sell in the current food truck craze.

We moved on to the cured lamb tongue ($11.88), which was served in a light dressing of lime juice and galangal and topped with tiny sprouts and bits of taro chips. The tongue seemed really tiny, and they were braised and thinly sliced. The presentation was like eating sashimi (sliced raw fish). The tongue lacked any gamey flavor, instead given a brightness from the lime.

Then came the highlight of our meal, which was the fish-head tamarind curry ($15.88). The dish is supposedly a celebratory dish in Malaysia but served only at home and rarely on a restaurant’s menu.

I had reservations about eating a fish head because I thought the head would be small and not have a lot of meat, but Ong’s version was made from the head of a huge striped bass. When the casserole container was brought to the table and the lid taken off, the entire dish looked like a lot.

Foodhoe and I started to dissect the head, using our spoons to scrape off the tender flesh from the cheeks, and then sucking on bones to get as much of the curry sauce. We also dared each other to eat the fish eye. First we found the pupils, which looked like a more round white tic tac. It was hard and tasted like chalk, so I don’t think the pupil is the best part of the eye to eat.

Then we discovered the eye socket, which was gooey like raw squid and it actually didn’t taste too bad. The texture was like eating uni, or sea urchin. Foodhoe said it was like eating a small raw oyster.

The curry sauce was a subtle blend of spices, not super spicy to mask the natural sweetness of the fish meat that we were able to suck off the bones of the head. The work put in to eat this dish reminded me of eating Dungeness crab – you eat with your hands and it can be messy, but so worth it.

I suggested to Foodhoe that we also order something from Betelnut’s regular menu. Throughout our dining experience, I could smell the other dishes being made for the other diners and they all seemed to have the strong savory flavor of soy and sugar. Glancing at the regular menu, I could see that there were a lot of the Chinese dishes that appeal to American diners such as firecracker shrimp, minced meat lettuce cups, and glazed short ribs.

I wanted to avoid these dishes and maybe order something different, so that’s how we ended with the “Beggar’s” chicken ($21.88), a half chicken wrapped in lotus leaf and then encased in clay and baked for almost two hours. (Yes, it was a long dinner.)

Our server brought out our chicken dish and handed me a wooden mallet to crack our clay-encased chicken. I tapped the clay in the spots that he pointed to and this is how it ended up looking, like some cracked dinosaur egg.

Then our server went about removing the clay pieces and pulling back the lotus leaf, which released an aroma that Foodhoe caught right away since she was sitting closest to the chicken. When the chicken was unveiled, our server pulled out some of the stuffing, which included wood ear mushroom and smoked pork belly pieces.

The chicken is brined overnight before being encased in clay, and that resulted in this extremely moist chicken. I enjoyed the texture of the meat, but I wished that it picked up more of the extra flavoring from the lotus leaf and pork belly. Instead the flavors were more one-dimensional. Still, eating this dish that was served tableside was a production that had diners at other tables turning their heads.

We didn’t order anything else from the regular menu because we were full from the chicken and the fish head curry, but mostly because Foodhoe wanted to save room for dessert, which was a chocolate-filled mochi that she had read about.

The trio of mochi came in a variety of flavors, including a chocolate mochi (mochi is the Japanese sticky rice treat) filled with a marshmallow (not my favorite), a mochi with white chocolate (just OK), and the mochi with chocolate ganache filling (the clear winner). The mochi were also served with a coconut-flavored cream on top of a pineapple sauce that was a bit salty and created this interesting salty and sweet playfulness in my mouth to offset the chewyness of the mochi.

Our secret menu dinner at Betelnut was a fun evening of trying unique dishes that also seemed to be the most authentic of dishes compared to those found on the regular menu. I don’t know if maybe Chef Ong doesn’t think his regular diners would like offal dishes or if he’s just playing it safe, but I feel the uniqueness of these offal dishes play more to the growing experimental hunger of Bay Area diners. Hopefully Ong won’t keep this menu a secret any more.

You can check out Foodhoe's version of our secret menu dinner on her scrumptious blog here.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (get pass the kitschy décor for the authentic flavors )

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Betelnut on Urbanspoon


Mrs. L said...

Okay, I probably wouldn't take a bus in the rain to try some offal, but I might just for the presentation of that chicken!

Hungry Dog said...

Great review. I really like Betelnut. I think most of the food there is very good (although kind of powerful--sometimes it's a bit TOO flavorful) and I always seem to have a good time when I end up there, in spite of it being in a neighborhood I don't like very much.

foodhoe said...

that curry alone was worth the slog through the rain!

Carolyn Jung said...

Alex Ong is so talented. His made-from-scratch mochi are the best ever. And the beggar's chicken is not only fun to dismantle with a hammer, but a delight to dig into with your chopsticks.