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Chao Mien Pop-up at Naked Lunch in SF’s North Beach: Mien, Lao & Thai

Melanie Wong | Jan 16, 201411:57 PM

Stumbling upon @ChaoMienSF on twitter quite by accident, my first thought was that this was yet another soul misspelling Chinese words. Digging a little further, I figured out that Mien actually refers to the ethnicity of Laos-born Chef Sarn Saechao. By day he’s the sous chef at Naked Lunch. He labels the cooking style for his pop-up, “Mien inspired, Locally driven”.

I slid in Sunday night to check it out. Naked Lunch’s Ryan Maxey was behind the bar to take my order and open a credit card tab. I asked him to let the kitchen know that I was no stranger to spice and that I loved tamarind. Maxey explained that he and his staff adore Chef Sarn and loved everything Mien that he’d ever fixed for them, so they encouraged him to present his own style of food to the public. The pop-up started last summer on an occasional basis, and now it will be a regular event each Sunday. I asked him to pick a beverage for me that would stand up to the food. His answer: “For Sarn’s spicy food, there’s only one recommendation to consider . . . Trumer Pils.”

First up, Roti stuffed with beef, $8. Paper-thin, shatteringly crisp layers of puffy roti quartered into cupped wedges were stacked with tender butter lettuce, the wet cooling crunch of cucumber and nubs of browned ground beef. A squiggle of “Chao sauce”, turned out to be a fragrant lemongrass aioli. And on top, a scatter of minced Thai basil released its anise-y aroma. The first mouthful was bland-ish in flavor and more about contrasting textures and temperatures, as well as exotic perfume. But then I combined the next bite with the pastel-colored pickles in the center of the plate, and WHAM, everything pops! Tart-salty-sweet pickled carrots, radishes, onions, and other crunchy bits along with some extra lettuce lightened and brightened to balance the heaviness of the oily fried bread and beef.

Next, Pork belly pad thai, $8, and Chef Sarn brought this to my table himself. He said, “I hear you're fond of tamarind and Thai hot, you’re going to like this dish.” I was happy to see the absence of catsup’s telltale red hue. The rice noodles had the perfect amount of firm chew. Scrambled egg, tofu, bean sprouts, chives, and peanuts were named on the menu. I also think I uncovered some bits of salted radish and dried shrimp. The pork belly component turned out to be dryish stir-fry of thin strips and not really adding that much to the dish other than a shine of pork fat. Pad Thai purists will decry the absence of fresh shrimp, and I have to say that I missed shrimp’s sweet flavor and could have used a bit more fish sauce. That said, this was a tasty noodle dish, and the leftovers made a spicy breakfast the next day.

To my knowledge, the only Mien dish I've every tasted before was kao soy from Green Champa Garden in Fremont. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8544... So I'm not qualified to opine on the Mien-ness of the cooking here. I just know that I enjoyed Chef Sarn's creations. And the Trumer Pils was the perfect light and refreshing accompaniment.

The prices were quite reasonable for the quality. I’ll definitely return to try more from the menu.

Chao Mien (at Naked Lunch)
504 Broadway
San Francisco, CA
Sundays, 5pm to 9pm

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