Betelnut was the #1 Hoppin’est Restaurant out of the 20 On Our recent Cal. Vacation.
I think it’s partly because they draw a lot of walk-ins here, and partly because it was 8PM on a Friday night, and partly because the food is still so darned good.
Warning: this is one BUSY LOUD place. We actually saw people having animated conversations, but we couldn’t quite figure out how they did it. ( I know—they were YOUNG! )The clientele here are all over the board. To one side of us was a table of 6 French PHD students who had driven over from Berkeley, and on the other was a Spanish middle aged couple on their way to the airport, followed by a 20’s something mixed race couple on a first date.(Did I mention that the tables are close enough that you can sometimes hear other conversations?) Visually, the restaurant is stunning with its red and black theme paired with bamboo and Asian art. I don't think it's been redone since they opened, but if it's handsome, why mess with it? The majority of tables are black leather banquettes and make for very comfortable seating. In the main dining room, behind and up the stairs from the crazy packed bar, the open kitchen is front and center , so if you want to sit at the wrap around counter, you can be inches away from some fascinating culinary action.
We have a real affection for this restaurant. On our first annual trip to SF, many years ago, we had lunch at Betelnut, and its opening chef, Barney (Smith?) joined us at our table, treated us to our first ethereal Jasmine Pearl tea, and explained many dishes, including the innovative method they had devised to oven-smoke their chilean sea bass. This same dish has continued to be our menu favorite, along with the Malaysian Laksa soup with noodles, chicken and shrimp in a rich curried coconut milk base.
As with many of the restaurants begun by Cindy Pawclyn, Betelnut has kept a great deal of its original menu, though the most recent chef change has been accompanied by a few menu changes as well.(Our fav. dessert- the coconut tapioca pudding with adzuki beans- has lost the beans. boo hoo.) In addition to our aforementioned favs, the highlights of last week’s dinner included:
Glazed Pork Shortribs w/ Thai Basil and Garlic- the embodiment of “Succulent Wow”
Seared Scallops w/ XO Sauce on Coconut Rice Cakes
Garlic edamame and Eggplant Puree w/ Crispy Flatbread- a daily special
I would order them all again, in a heartbeat, but I would ask them to tone down the heat in the Laksa, and I would double the order of Shortribs!
Our spunky friendly waitress, Ashley, was as food-knowledgeable as any chef. Her help with menu choices was terrific and on our next visit we hope to be able to fit in her strong recommendations for the Galanga Beef Filet, the Shui Jiao Pork Dumplings w/ Szechuan Peppercorn Broth, and the Udon Noodles w/ Braised Pork. I think that means that next time we’ll have to fit in a lunch as well as a dinner……YES!!