April 29, 2013 Update: The Hutong “experiment” lasted less than one and a half months. Betelnut is back as of today and the menu will be a combination of Betelnut and Hutong menus (click to read InsideScoopSF article).
It’s rare when a popular restaurant decides to make a change and morph into a new concept while keeping the ownership, chef and staff completely intact. This was the case of Betelnut’s transformation into Hutong over the past month. Opened almost 2 decades ago in 1995, Betelnut Peiju Wu was truly ahead of it’s time as an Asian beer house serving small salty plates (and a few large ones) specifically meant to make one drink more beer. A bowl of anchovies fried with chile and peanuts was a great example, a dish that was also new to many Western palates. Initially, they provided their own rice ale beer on draft, but eventually moved to offering commercial beers. Cecilia Chang, who almost singlehandedly introduced Northern Chinese dishes served in an upscale environment to America with The Mandarin (the place to go in the 1970s and 80s), was instrumental in bringing the concept to the Real Restaurant Group. She also provided many of her signature Mandarin dishes such as Chicken Lettuce Cups, a popular item on the menu (by then she had sold the Mandarin which eventually closed in 2006).
In 1991, they hired Malaysian-born chef Alexander Ong who kept Betelnut’s menu mostly intact, but eventually added many of his own signature items such as the Beggar’s Chicken: a lotus-leaf wrapped chicken stuffed with mushrooms, pork belly and rice that is all covered with clay, and then roasted to perfection. Cracking the clay tableside was part of the eating experience. Even though Betelnut had been open for awhile, it managed to stay relevant. So it was a surprise to many when they announced that they were changing the concept to offer a different small plates street-food experience, concentrating on dishes found throughout back alleys (Hutong) in little known restaurants or markets throughout Asia. Chef Ong and crew took a trip throughout Asia including China, Hong Kong and Vietnam to get inspiration for this new concept (click here to read the InsideScoopSF story).
Betelnut closed for a week and the Shanghai 1930’s type decor and posters were taken down in favor of a more street-food friendly graffiti art, and Hutong was officially born. Gone are the chicken lettuce cups which can still be found at PF Chang’s (the ubiquitous chain co-founded by Cecilia’s son Peter). However, the red counters, furniture and slow-moving palm-leaf ceiling fans remain; as does the large open kitchen that runs along the wall of the restaurant.
With the rebirth came a new cocktail menu. Lychee Martinis and sweet drinks are no more, replaced by Asian-tinged updates on classic cocktails such as a Basil Gimlet (Hendrick’s Gin, Thai Basil, lemongrass, Agave syrup) and the Beijing Mule (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, ginger, lime, Ginger Beer):
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They must be very serious about steering away from sweet drinks because neither one of these drinks had any sweetness at all where the Gimlet tasted mostly of lemongrass and the Mule was dominated by too much raw ginger. We asked for more Ginger Beer to top off the Mule which helped a bit — maybe sweet pickled or candied ginger might have been a better choice. The bartenders were earnest and busy, so the bar program will likely improve.
Enough about the cocktails, what about the food? The food menu is much shorter than Betelnut’s, and they were already out of three or four items we wanted to order, but what we did end up eating was all very delicious and tasty. As offal fans, we had to order the Crispy Chicken Livers. The cornstarch and rice flour coated fried livers were crispy, despite being covered with a flavorful black pepper sauce and caramelized onions. We would easily order and eat this dish any day:
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To complete our chicken course, we ordered the Chicken Wings, Jalan Alor Style. Named after the famous street food market in Kuala Lumpur, Malyasia, the BBQ wings were fall-off the bone great, especially when dipped in the mildly hot mustard and sriracha sauces:
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We believe that off-dry white wines are the best pairing for spicy Asian food. Wine markups seem high at 3X retail (at least for this bottle), but this Sacramento delta-grown Viognier was a good pairing for the rest of our meal:
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The Oxtail Hotpot arrived in a very hot cast iron dish where the mizuna greens, whole egg, shiitake and honshimeji mushrooms were all separated. We were to slow to take a picture since the server immediately doused the pan with broth and helpfully mixed everything together. The boneless tail meat was super tender and delicious. With an equal ratio to the meat, the mushrooms were a perfect accompaniment:
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The Hutong Fried Rice with basil, shrimp and scrambled eggs flavored with soy sauce was probably the most ordinary item we ate all evening. Our bartender kindly ordered it for us, when there was a mixup regarding the delivery timing of a bowl of white rice:
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We are still trying to figure out what part of Asia the Braised Collard Greens came from. Served with preserved mustard greens, garlic, ham hock meat and a perfectly poached egg, it tasted like it came from the South. It was delicious, especially since there seemed to be an equal amount of pork to greens, and the egg was just a bonus:
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Hutong’s transformation in terms of menu items and decor is refreshing. Betelnut’s menu didn’t really change that often so maybe some change is good. One of the new features will likely be a more seasonally focused menu. Do note that the Beggar’s Chicken is still available, but does require at least a 24 hour notice (so call ahead).