Has Thai lost its bite? Not at Hawker Fare in San Francisco. Nope, not even close. The opening of owner James Syhabout’s groovy, new, authentically Thai-spiced restaurant is an inspired experience in blasting, delicious flavors—an unapologetic travelogue into the street foods of Thailand.
Set in the center of the Mission District’s newly-hip neighborhood at Valencia and 18th Street, it’s the casual, just-found-it discovery for city dwellers or suburbanites looking for the next provocative eating establishment. Spices here—and you need to know this going in—are not held back. They’re brave, experimental, and even over-the-edge, lilting into a kind of hot, zesty, zing in the mouth, offering much more than just sustenance. It’s the element of surprise that Chef Supasit “O” Puttkaew plates each night, and it is a revelation to experience. Rich, dark, pungent, crisp, bright-between-the-eyes intensity is face-front-present in each and every sauce, each simmering flavor. Chef O’s dishes spark memories of walking the streets of Khao San Road in Bangkok, hot with humidity, the street vendors and tiny eateries cooking up exceptional, mouth-watering Thai fare.
The flavors of another land’s earth are immediately recognizable in Syhabout’s recipes, in dishes like the Som Tum Lao green papaya salad with crab and dried thai chilis; the Moo Yang barbequed pork shoulder chops adapted from the owner’s mom’s recipe; the Yum Khai Dao fried egg salad with Nam Jim; the Laab Pla Duk Yas, an Isan-region-inspired salad of catfish, chilies, mint and fish sauce; and the fabulously fiery Gai Thot, beer-battered fried chicken with cilantro and Nam Prik Pao sauce. The drinks are all rum-based, and the concoctions—far from being overly sugary—leave sweet zings of biting flavor on the tongue. They’re “Tiki Drinks,” so says the menu, but with a spin: fresh fruit juice, high-end rums, and an herby crispness that really does thrill. The “Dr. Wong,” for instance, is a white Guyanese and dark Dominican rum drink with lime and Herb-Saint, and on first taste, it’s three cuts above the usual spin of bartender innovations.
Syhabout is no stranger to the restaurant biz, and his successful 2011 haunt of the same name in the West Grand neighborhood of Oakland created the foundation for his 2015 San Francisco opening. His menu springs from his childhood and travels through the Isan and Laos regions of his native country, blended with a crisp and fiery modern sensibility. It’s an inspired rendition of the genre, a lifting off from the traditional to something else entirely—an attention-arresting flavor fest that your taste buds immediately recognize as nothing short of brilliant.
Reservations are a good idea on weekends, as the place can stay busy for dinner well into the later dinner hours. Dress is casual, and tables are set with traditional oilcloth table coverings and multi-colored metal chairs. Service is attentive and quick. Food and drink are spiritual experiences here—a spice discovery quest—with all the earmarks of a grand adventure. It’s an adventure you won’t want to miss.
Hawker Fare, 2300 Webster at 23rd, Oakland, CA 94612, USA, +1 510-832-8896
JoAnneh Nagler writes travel, books, plays, essays and music, and is the author of the new book How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass (2016), and the Amazon Top-100 book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: www.AnArtistryLife.com.