Fabulous Fish Head Curry at Betelnut Restaurant

by foodhoe on April 1, 2011

2030 Union St, SF, CA  94123 | 415.929.8855 |  website | twitter

I met my friend Ben, who writes the irresistible blog Cooking with the Single Guy, for a memorable Blackboard Eats dining experience at Betelnut Restaurant a couple of weeks ago.  What was most exciting about this was the secret menu aspect: a celebration of offal with dishes rarely found in restaurants.  Chef Alex Ong grew up in Malaysia, a country of many culinary influences including Thai, Chinese and Indian and his dishes reflect those flavors.  The special menu is only available until May 8 and you must have a passcode from BBE to be able to order them.  I feel very remiss in posting about this as you can no longer get a passcode, but really, what they need to do is put the fish head curry on their regular menu.  Betelnut was one of the first in the city to offer explorations of Asian street food; the rambling layout of the dining rooms feel as if you are in a dark and mysterious alley in a Shanghai speakeasy.

There is a distinctly reddish element throughout the restaurant, a lucky color that imbues the teeth of those who chew the betelnut.  We sat across from the open kitchen, the one brightly lit area in the restaurant, which has a counter that began to fill up as the evening wore on.

I wanted to order all of the courses from the secret menu which  but was convinced otherwise by Ben who rigorously avoids fried foods.  We began with Salt & Pepper Veal Sweetbreads ($12.88) which arrived gently steaming, a mound of delicately fried little nuggets that were topped with a gorgeously aromatic mixture of fresh ginger, garlic and Szechuan peppercorn along with scallions, five spice and salt.  I loved it, although I am quite sure that had I been blindfolded, I wouldn’t know I was eating sweetbreads. I gleefully finished the plate since Ben only sampled a few bites from the dish.

Next we shared the Cured Lamb Tongue ($11.88), exquisite slices of lamb tongue tossed with galanga root, lime juice, chilies, sugar and salt.  The delicate flesh was velvety soft and tender and was bright and flavorful from the lime.

My favorite dish was the huge tureen of Fish head tamarind curry ($15.88).  We quickly gave up trying to eat this with a fork and spoon, instead picking up blades of bone and cartilage and sucking off the tender luscious pieces of flesh from the cheek and collar.  The curry was spicy and rich from coconut milk and tamarind and full of chunks of eggplant and okra  that were infused with the delicious flavors.  Our server thoughtfully provided us with warmed damp towels, a very nice touch!

The meat from the fish head is rich and fatty, surrounded by bone, cartilage and tendons, which contributes to the flavor.  The texture is seductively lush and tender, seriously finger licking good.  This is the eye socket.  It was like a small plastic cup filled with a briney goo that reminded me of an oyster.

This is Ben taunting me with the white beady eyeball, which we both tried.  It was tough and rubbery and broke apart, crumbling into bitter unpleasant pieces that I was very unhappy to have in my mouth.  So kids, trust the brave explorers who have determined that you should definitely pass on this part of the eyeball.

The Single Guy zeroed in on the Beggar’s Chicken ($21.88) from the regular menu, because he said it was unusual and that you didn’t see it on menus very often.  After having conceded to a fried appetizer, he gently chided me that you can get the lettuce wrap dish everywhere when I began to whine…  and in the end I’m glad that I listened because this dish really was exciting, especially the presentation.  The chicken is brined overnight then rubbed with soy, ginger and other spices and allowed to marinate.  They are wrapped up in lotus leaves along with corn, mushrooms and pork belly, then covered with a thick layer of gray clay and roasted for about 90 minutes.  Our server brought this on a cart for a rather elaborate tableside presentation, while he related the charming history of the dish to us, the tale of a starving beggar who catches a chicken and lacking a stove, covers the chicken in mud and bakes it in a fire.  Here is the action shot of Ben whacking the clay chicken

Our server broke away all of the cracked clay, revealing a bundle wrapped up in lotus leaf.

He opened up the package, which smelled amazing and reminded me of the sticky rice bundles from dimsum.

For dessert, I wanted to try the house made mochi after I had read this interesting article on Andrea Nguyen’s Asian Dumpling website.  The Trio of Mochi ($7.88) included one filled with white chocolate with pina colada sauce, another filled with milk chocolate, caramel sauce and macadamia nuts, and the last was dark chocolate s


And this is the dark chocolate s’more mochi.  It was an interesting combination that I thought I’d like, but the dark chocolate was bitter, and the graham cracker garnish seemed too harsh against the soft silken mochi.  My favorite was the milk chocolate with caramel sauce, it was simple and perfect.

I can’t stop thinking about the fish head curry, I hope Chef Ong puts that on the menu!  What an amazing dish… an amazing meal really.  You can read the Single Guy’s review here.

Betelnut on Urbanspoon

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa April 1, 2011 at 7:09 am

A wonderful meal! That clay chicken is intriguing…




Kirk April 1, 2011 at 10:25 am

Hey FH – Fish head is very under-rated. If you can find a good Hunan fish head with chilies; it’s wonderful stuff.


Single Guy Ben April 2, 2011 at 4:21 am

LOL, sorry my aversion to fried foods held you back on the secret menu! I agree that the curry should be on the regular menu. Thanks for being a good secret menu dinner mate!


Heather in SF April 21, 2011 at 6:49 am

That fishhead curry was amazing! We had the chicken too and I was the lucky one to get to take home the leftovers. We had the chicken livers from the secret menu and they were very nice. I hope the chef puts some of these dishes on the regular menu, don’t you?


Gastronomer April 21, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Now, that’s a really cool BBE perk! We’ve yet to have a secret menu deal in L.A.

What’s up with Ben not eating fried foods?! Doesn’t he know what’s good for him? 😉


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