A few years ago, chef James Syhabout opened Hawker Fare, a casual counterpart to his glossy, cerebral brainchild, Commis. Both restaurants are in Oakland. One has a Michelin star, the other serves fried chicken, family style, and encourages ditching utensils and being loud.
Hawker Fare has a new branch on Valencia Street in San Francisco, where a nostaligic Syhabout – whose sparkly pedigree sometimes has him offering conceptual food that leans toward art experiments – is serving home-cooked food inspired by his roots.
Having grown up in the Isaan province (along the corridor where Thailand meets Laos), Syhabout has stayed faithful to the food his mother cooked, which pulled flavors from both countries.
Papaya salad originated in Laos, but Isaan made it famous. Som Tum Lao, Hawker Fare's version with salted crab, is (as are most things here) insanely spicy. The black crab is soft and salted, with little claws sprinkled throughout streams of noodly green papaya.
The fried chicken (gai thot) is a revelation. It’s got an airy crispness of rice-flour batter, a generous dose of cilantro root and coat of an umami-rich soy and chili sauce that adds a hefty backbone.
The sai oua, a traditional pork sausage from northeast Thailand, packs impressive and various levels of pork-ness onto one plate. The sausage is smoky, sweet and only mildly spicy, flanked by fried pork skin and a side of unmeasurably delicious roasted chilis.
A certain funk underpins almost every dish. It's fish-like and vinegary, and suggests actual fish rotting in the kitchen – but not in a bad way.
In his stride toward the authentic street food of his youth, Syhabout departs from Thai flavors and dishes (that surely would sell well) in favor of ingredients such Laotian chili pastes (which traditionally integrate mashed beetles) and heaps of fiery chilis.
His version of beefsteak tartar is coupled with tripe and made bitter with beef bile. Rolled up on lettuce wraps, it's best between other bites.
The menu’s “poached chicken” actually is chicken cooked sous-vide, swaddled in delicate aromatics. The dish perfectly embodies what Hawker Fare is: street food wrought from hands trained in a high-end kitchen, hands fluent in modernist techniques that have no audience on the Laotian border. I’m into it.
The chicken fat rice (khao mun gai) is delicious and schmaltzy, and the pork belly with fermented mustard is sublimely tender and bathed in a very dark, deeply delicious, soy-based sauce. Durian sticky rice tastes far from the fruit's natural old-sock stink that has it banned on subways around Thailand. Instead, it's sweet and complex.
On my second visit, to test the food’s authenticity, I brought a friend who lived near Isaan for five years. He was shaken by the familiarity, even though the chili sauce had no beetles and the catfish was a fried, small portion rather than a poached, huge portion.
In an area where restaurants are increasingly normal, Hawker Fare is occasionally, and delightfully, offensive. A fishy funk gives way to an unusual, beautiful depth of flavor. The chilis are strong, the fish sauce is rotten, and it's exactly what Valencia Street needs.
Location: 680 Valencia St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 400-5699, www.hawkerfare.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 to 9 p.m . Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays for lunch
Recommended dishes: Fried chicken ($10.50), papaya salad ($11.50), chicken fat rice ($13.50) ($14)
Credit cards: All major