A spread of Isaan food at chef James Syhabout's Hawker Fare (©Aubrie Pick)
Culturally diverse San Francisco has long been home to restaurants serving cuisine from around the world, but in more recent times, critics have found it challenging to distinguish one menu from the next at restaurants on the higher end of the spectrum.
In their defense, San Francisco’s top chefs simply share the custom of capitalizing on the outstanding produce, seafood and livestock that flourishes in the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate (not to mention all the locally produced artisan cheeses, breads and olive oils) and incorporate the best of the current season into simple dishes that rightfully showcase the ingredients themselves.
Yet lately, menus have become less predictable and more eclectic while staying true to that custom, with a boom of critically acclaimed establishments focusing on cuisines from far-flung locales, many of which have been underrepresented in the U.S. culinary scene.
In a nondescript corner of the SoMa neighborhood, 1601 Bar & Kitchen has been quietly turning out exceptional Sri Lankan food, and critics are starting to take notice. On a mission to bring the Thai food she grew up with in Bangkok to San Francisco, Pim Techamuanvivit opened Kin Khao, which makes all of its condiments in house, sources from local purveyors and brings in the best staples from Thailand to create dishes like nothing you’d find in a typical U.S. Thai joint. Liholiho Yacht Club, a small restaurant in Lower Nob Hill that serves the multicultural flavors that chef Ravi Kapur grew up with in his native Oahu, was named one of the nation’s best new restaurants of 2015 by Bon Appetit magazine. At Mourad, a glamorous new restaurant in the Financial District, the eponymous Michelin-starred chef uses exacting technique to prepare Moroccan dishes that have ancient roots.
This wave of international restaurants is more than just another trend. It’s a deeply personal tribute to heritage. These chef-owners are taking a risk in introducing the less conventional cuisine that they grew up with to a San Francisco audience. “Most chefs go into this business with the hopes and dreams of one day having their own restaurant. I put everything on the line; I scraped every last dime together,” says chef Roberth Sundell, who grew up in Stockholm, Sweden and owns Plaj in Hayes Valley. “I have always dreamed of opening a Scandinavian restaurant, but I was scared to promote it as one because I did not know how well it would be received. A friend said if you are going to do this you need to do it all the way. I decided to cook from my heart and cook from my home.”
Both born and raised in Guam, chef Shawn Naputi and his business partner Shawn Camacho were disappointed that their Chamorro culture wasn’t visible in a city as diverse as San Francisco. “It struck me that people just didn’t know about Guam. We’re an American territory,” says chef Naputi, who’s worked at some of the city’s best restaurants. “At Prubechu, we share our culture and our food and the Chamorro way. Guam is so unique—we have European colonial influences and Japanese and Asian influences.”
“Top Chef” alum Preeti Mistry shared a similar desire to spotlight an overlooked cuisine. Although she had formal training at Cordon Bleu in London and cooked California and European cuisine, she knew that eventually she wanted to cook Indian. “Most people in the U.S., especially on the West Coast, just know about this one particular style of Indian cuisine, the Punjabi or North Indian cuisine, the naan and curry,” the Juhu Beach Club chef says. “But there’s a whole subcontinent with so many different styles and regional cuisines that I wanted to explore and bring out.”
One of the city’s buzziest chefs of the moment, Ravi Kapur, has experience at San Francisco culinary stalwarts like Boulevard and Prospect, but at Liholiho Yacht Club he’s going a new direction. “I’m cooking from the flavors I grew up with. My parents and grandmothers on both sides of my native Hawaiian, Chinese and Indian backgrounds were all amazing cooks,” he says. “It's what I am comfortable doing; it's what I relate to; it's my soul food! Sure, I’ve had many years of classic training, but it feels good to return to my roots.”
These talented chefs share a willingness to put their hearts on the table. At Liholiho Yacht Club, a 1970s photo of chef Kapur’s mother in Hawaii hangs above the bar, and the aloha ethos pervades both the atmosphere and menu, which features a housemade version of the Spam Kapur grew up eating.
At Hawker Fare, chef James Syhabout encourages guests to eat with their hands like his family did growing up. The two locations of his popular restaurant specialize in the gastronomy of the Isaan region in Thailand near the Laos border. “It’s very meaningful to have such a large culinary stage in San Francisco with guests who are well educated and traveled,” he says. “It also makes me nervous.”
As a teenager growing up in Ohio, chef Mistry was one of the only Indian kids in class. “I grew up almost hating being Indian, thinking ‘why just can’t I be like everybody else, why do I have to be different,’” she says. “It’s amazing to get to a place where I can celebrate where my family’s from and be a part of sharing the beauty and flavors and culture.”
Chef and restaurateur Manny Torres, who has worked at some of San Francisco and New York City’s most high profile restaurants (Quince, Coi and Nobu), reveals that his only memory of relaxing is his childhood visits to Venezuela’s Isla Margarita, located off the Caribbean coast. “I wanted to open a place that was as laidback as that island,” he says of his newest restaurant Coco Frio, where the decor is spare, the drinks are served in coconuts and the arepas are handmade. “All of my family members were politicians, and now I feel like I am an ambassador of Venezuelan food here in San Francisco.”
San Franciscans have responded to these earnest restaurant projects with enthusiasm, eager to try flavors from unfamiliar cultures. Chef Naputi finds it gratifying to see people appreciating his cuisine. “Being from such a small island it means a lot to us to make some kind of noise,” he says. He’s noticed a similar ambition spreading throughout the industry. “People are starting to stand up for where they come from and who they are. Five years ago, even if you weren’t Italian you’d open an Italian restaurant.”
The international influence now more evident than ever in San Francisco’s food scene still has an unmistakably Northern California accent. “I’ve been cooking California cuisine for many years, and cooking seasonally with local products has always been a part of my lexicon,” chef Mistry says. “I work with a local farm owned by one of our servers, and she’s also growing things specifically for us, like fresh fenugreek leaves, which are used a lot in Indian cuisine. I’ve been able to incorporate that in traditional ways, like in chicken curry, and in really nontraditional ways, like fenugreek pesto with pistachios and garlic on a corn dish.”
Chef Kapur describes his restaurant as heritage driven. “There are Bay Area influences because I’ve lived and cooked in San Francisco for nearly 18 years. I have close relationships with many farmers and am drawn to the incredible ingredients we have all around us.”
With this infusion of new global restaurants, the Bay Area food scene is more electric than ever. These creative and uncompromising chefs aren’t afraid to break the rules. Take chef Mistry’s dosa waffle from the Juhu Beach Club brunch menu: “My tendency as a chef is to use the most traditional methods. A lot of people make dosa using a mix and just add water. We purchase the rice and the lentils. We soak them overnight for 24 hours. We grind them, and then we fold that batter together and then it sits out for another 24 hours and naturally ferments. But then we put it in a waffle maker.” No matter how well traveled you are, in today’s San Francisco you’re guaranteed to find worldly dishes like you’ve never imagined.
What to Order
Coco Frio: Love Soup
“This aphrodisiac dish embodies Isla Margarita, where it’s hawked up and down the beaches. The broth is a combination of seven different fish bones and mussels, clams and other fresh fish of the day. It’s called the 'Mattress Breaker' because it is that good...” — Chef Manny Torres
Hawker Fare: Seen Ping
“Most often brisket is prepared using a long cooking process that leaves it very tender. We serve our grilled beef brisket medium rare so it has some chew and is more flavorful with the fat attached. It’s different yet delicious.” – Chef James Syhabout
Juhu Beach Club: Manchurian Cauliflower
“We sell out of it almost every night. Indian-Chinese is an actual cuisine where India and China share a border. We take cauliflower, as well as rainbow carrots and onions, and marinate them overnight in a spice blend that I make in house. We deep fry it and make this sweet and sour sauce in house with a lot of spice and ginger. It’s basically like vegetable candy.” — Chef Preeti Mistry
Liholiho Yacht Club: Beef Tongue Bao
“It’s pulled from many cultures, as is my heritage. Also it's pushing the boundaries and getting people to try and enjoy beef tongue.” – Chef Ravi Kapur
“It is buttery, delicious and takes me back to Sweden every time I have it.” — Chef Roberth Sundell
“It’s a classic chicken sausage or farce recipe that’s getting lost. We make it with better poultry and ingredients, wrap it in banana leaf to give it that extra earthy flavor and steam it in coconut milk.” — Chef Shawn Naputi