Appetite: Betelnut’s secret Malaysian menu, March 8 until May 8

Pub date March 6, 2011
SectionFood & Drink

Foodies, take note. If you like offal, Malaysian food, or adventurous eating, there’s a “secret” offal menu through Blackboard Eats. Sign up for the Betelnut special on March 8th only. You’ll get a passcode to give to your waiter at the restaurant during any dinner until May 8th. 

It has been awhile since I visited Betelnut, though I used to frequent it in my early years of living in SF. Chef Alex Ong has been there about that long (10 years), serving Betelnut’s ever-popular mix of Asian cuisines. He gets to bring a bit of his Malaysian roots to this secret menu, combining street food from his home country in family-style dishes for four or more people.

Sampling these generous dishes is both approachable and comforting. Don’t be afraid of animal parts you may not have eaten before. There’s adventure here but in a presentation reminiscent of heartwarming Asian bar food.

Start with crispy chicken livers in black pepper sauce ($9.88). A street food snack, Chef Ong says he’d get these on skewers in a plastic bag they’d eat at the movies in Malaysia. Served here in a bowl, lightly fried livers are tender and slightly crisp, lush with oyster sauce and roasted onions.

In a delicate, sashimi/tartare-like presentation, cured lamb tongue ($11.88) is thinly-sliced, bright with lime juice and chilies, topped with freshly grated galangal root and crispy taro. It’s Malaysia by way of Thailand.

Salt & pepper veal sweetbreads ($12.88) combine Chef Ong’s French-training and French classic, sweetbreads, with Cantonese-style salt and pepper sauce, scallions, ginger, garlic.

My favorite may be the 3-lb. fish head in tamarind curry ($15.88). Served in a giant pot, the fish head holds fall-off-the-bone, flaky fish meat (beware the eyeballs! Eat up the tender cheek meat!) It rests in a bold, coconut milk, shrimp paste, spice-heavy curry that is creamy, textured. Okra dots the dish, as do Fresno chilies. Pickled in vinegar & sugar, these chilies were so good, adding a needed contrast to the rich sauce, that I asked for a side of more. With South Indian roots, this dish is an example of Nonya cuisine (a mix of Malaysian, Indian, Chinese foods), and is served at celebratory meals in Malaysia.

P.S. For more fun, Betelnut roasts whole pigs on Tuesday nights… get there early as they will stop serving this off-menu special once pigs run out.

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