Camp Hip

Pub date September 12, 2006

Everybody seems to love Thai food, but the oohing and aahing is generally confined to the cooking. You don’t hear much about the stunning designs of Thai restaurants. In one sense, this is just fine; good food is its own reward, and overclever interior decoration can lead to sensory overload. Still, Thai restaurants tend to be plain Janes more often than not, many fitted out with those steel-frame chairs that look like they’ve been salvaged from the mess hall of some battleship that’s being put into mothballs, or scrapped.
You will not find such chairs at Be My Guest, a Thai bistro that opened recently along inner Clement. You will find, instead, curvy white plastic numbers that look like halves of giant eggshells mounted on bird legs. Have we stumbled onto the set of an early Woody Allen movie, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, maybe, in which Woody plays spermatozoa anxiously awaiting to launch to … he knows not where? One would not say the overall bleachiness of Be My Guest’s look — white walls and curtains complete the laundry-day motif — is beautiful, exactly, but it does command attention and does strike a certain balance between camp and hip. (Camp hip, is this a permissible term?) And those who detect a slight LA edge in the playful tackiness will not be surprised to learn that there is a sibling restaurant, Gindhi Thai, in the southland.
The chairs are not particularly comfortable. They have a water-slide quality, and one has to be careful not to end up on the floor while shifting one’s legs, which must serve as braces. But that is really my only misgiving about a place that otherwise is a worthy addition to the already formidable array of restaurants along Clement between Arguello and Park Presidio. Be My Guest might not quite be a destination restaurant on its own, but it is part of, and contributes to, one of the city’s premier destination zones, those stretches of street you can meander along, studying menu cards, until you find a place that appeals and pop in, knowing you aren’t likely to be disappointed. (NB: parking is an ordeal.)
Like a number of Thai places I have visited recently, Be My Guest is rather effortlessly vegetarian friendly. To make sure, I paid a visit with a vegetarian friend, who immediately picked up the flavor of shrimp in the basket of delicious rice crisps of many colors set before us, to nibble as we pondered the menu. (With this quibble duly noted, we nibbled them together.) She went on to detect the presence of fish sauce in the delicious tofu larb ($6.95), minced (and slightly rubbery, but not in a bad way) bean curd mixed with lime juice, mint, and chiles and heaped on romaine spears useful for scooping. Since I am just a part-time vegetarian, it would never have occurred to me that fish sauce — which is as central to the Indo-Chinese cuisines as soy sauce is to the cooking of China and Japan — would raise an issue. Full-time vegetarians will want to plan accordingly.
No flag was raised over the sweet-potato fritters ($6.95), which resembled dragonflies cast in bronze and would have been even better if there’d been some kind of sauce to dip them in. (The fritters were presented with cucumber two ways: as slices linked together in paper-doll fashion, and diced into a vinegary little salad with carrot threads.) And we knew beforehand that the panang curry ($9.95), fettucinelike strips of boneless chicken awash in a well-tempered red sauce, would present no vegetarian issue, since no vegetarian would go near it despite its rich deliciousness. (Panang curry is a coconut-milk curry enhanced with ground peanuts — a Malaysian touch.) On the other hand, the veg curry corner ($9.95) — a crock of soupy, basil-scented green curry laden with broccoli florets, chunked eggplant, snow peas, and green beans — passed vegetarian scrutiny like a traveler, divested of shoes, watch, belt buckle, loose change, and toothpaste, sailing through a security checkpoint at the airport.
Given the egg-shaped chairs, it follows that we would find an omelet ($6.95) on the noontime menu — a vegetarian omelet no less, filled with mixed greens, spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu and given a definite Southeast Asian perfume by ginger and lemongrass. But the wider possibilities of lunchtime are grouped under the rubric “Afternoon Delight,” which provides (for $7.25) a choice of starter and of main course, along with soup, salad, rice, and seasonal fruit. One day’s soup, of celery and tofu in a pale vegetable broth, we found to be no better than serviceable, the salad was a wallflower heap of mixed greens, and the fruit consisted of some grapes and orange wedges. But the fish cake, though texturally a bit of a rubber sponge, was intensely tasty (and a pretty caramel color), while a red vegetable curry was rich and just spicy enough to conceal the plebeian character of its carrot-and-potato ballast.
Thai bistro. I choke slightly on this expression while accepting that, at least in its American sense, it does apply to Be My Guest. The place captures just the right balance of hominess and style: its hours are liberal and its prices moderate, and it draws (especially on weekend evenings) a diverse crowd, tilting toward youth and bubbling with energy. And that’s everything you always wanted to know. SFBG
Dinner: daily, 4–10:30 p.m.
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
951 Clement, SF
(415) 386-1942
Full bar
Moderately noisy
Wheelchair accessible