Nari – San Francisco, CA
Most often, the experience at eating at a Thai restaurant in any given city in America is largely predictable––inexpensive food in strip malls with carbon-copy menus focusing on a handful of familiars like pad Thai, yellow curry, or tom kha. You pick your dish, protein, and spice level. Throw in some crab rangoons for good measure.
Nari is not one of these restaurants.
California has over 200,000 residents of Thai heritage, the largest population outside of Thailand. In San Francisco, where most of the Asian American population tends to trace their roots to East or South Asia, it's far more common to find, say, Chinese chefs pushing the envelope of their heritage cuisines; Nari is an example of San Francisco's exciting modern Asian food scene, but this time with Thai cuisine.
Chef Pim Techamuanvivit's cuisine has been described as "alive," "unflinching," and "unapologetic." Her kitchen is an unequivocal rejection of the cookie-cutter Americanized Thai restaurant, and may well be the most exciting Asian restaurant in the country. There's no bending to the American palate here, though the service staff is neither aloof nor unhelpful when talking through the offerings. Nari's marriage of seasonal California ingredients and classic Thai recipes pays homage to Thai immigrants who came to California in the early- to mid-20th century, finding themselves without access to the unique ingredients of their homeland and needing to make do with what was available.
The name is special as well––"Nari" is Thai Sanskrit word for "woman," a love letter to the women immigrants who brought the culinary traditions of Thailand with them to California and passed them down. Women also occupy almost all of the directorial positions in the restaurant, from Chef herself to Meghan Daniel Hoang, the killer head mixologist. They buy wine and ingredients from woman-owned businesses whenever possible and the vast majority of the staff is women.
The Knell clan loves Thai food, so a visit to Nari (preceded by drinks at the amazing PCH) was essential during Mom's birth-week bash. After a lengthy drive back from Big Sur, we were famished and excited to dig into some of the most thrilling food being made in the city.
Nari is, surprisingly, in the beating heart of San Francisco's Japantown in the basement of the Hotel Kabuki. Spanning two floors with over 100 covers, the minimalist space spills over with jungle plants and brims with a buzzy atmosphere. Though we brought a bottle of Reeve riesling from our Sonoma County travels, we wanted to start by sampling the wonderful mixologist's creations.
I believe each cocktail on the menu shares the given name of a Thai woman, and knowing the intentionality of everything here, I would be unsurprised to learn each name belonged to a woman who was important to the restaurant or staff in some way. Georgia, owing to her love of all things passionfruit, went for the fizzy "Vasithi," made with lemongrass vodka, passionfruit, lemon, orgeat, and a bit of Thai spice. Mom loves mezcal and was drawn to "Viyada," combining the smoky spirit with arbol chili syrup, apricot, curaçao, and lime. Yours truly is a sucker for a gin and tonic, and couldn't resist Hoang's take, "Som," made with mandarin oranges, grapefruit, and a hint of chili. As is our tradition, we passed around the drinks for each of us to sample in a sort of boozy carousel.
After our server offered us a breakneck but helpful overview of the menu, full of ingredients unfamiliar to most American diners (including us!), we settled on four appetizers and two entrées, all served family style.
Pork croquettes, helpfully served in a set of three, came first––delightful fried bites of pork and northern curry in a bed of mustard greens. Alongside were ajad pickles, a classic accompaniment to fried Thai dishes, for some refreshing tang. A nice way to start.
Two permutations of laab, a southeast Asian minced meat dish, followed. The first was a beef-based laab seasoned with an exceptionally challenging spice blend of bird chilis, coriander, Sichuan pepper called prik laab. Within the tartare were fried alliums and fresh, pungent herbs, and alongside were black rice crackers and cucumbers.
The flavor of this dish was out of this world, but about 30 seconds into my first bite, I knew I was in trouble. I like to think I have a high spice tolerance, so when the server warned us this dish was spicy, we all laughed it off. Mistake, whiteys. They aren't fucking around here. It took us about 30 minutes and several bottles of water (and asking, like wimps, for a bowl of white rice on the side) to finish this dish. It was hot, y'all, but at the same time we couldn't get enough. Unapologetic cuisine. This was also the moment we decided opening our riesling was a bad idea, since alcohol can only exacerbate the burn!
The second laab, made with mushrooms instead of meat, was decidedly cooler. This was similar to a laab dish I've had (and made!) several times before, with mushrooms and alliums forming the base of the laab and butter lettuce cups alongside to make little "tacos." The thing that held it all together was a mouthwatering fish sauce-dominant chili sauce called jaew, normally used in Thailand for dipping. After the alarmingly spicy beef laab, this was a tremendous relief.
The last appetizer was our favorite, made with slightly disjunct grilled squid and braised pork jowl. The squid was tossed in a chili-lime dressing alongside the sticky, succulent pork jowl, and the whole dish was dusted with peanuts and served with sticky rice. The pork jowl might have been the bite of the night with a melty texture and impossibly rich flavor, and we fought over the few bites of it on the plate.
More often than not, chicken dishes I order aren't terrific, so I wasn't too thrilled about the idea of the first entrée, but the server insisted it was one of the best things on the menu and it ended up being a crowd favorite. Always listen to your server! Beautifully-cooked chicken was charred in the wok with a sweeter style of red curry sauce and accompanied by romano beans and thinly-sliced makrut lime leaves. Surprising, complex, and spectacular.
Lamb is a natural pairing with the sweet richness of massaman curry. Chef makes her curry with a lamb shank so tender it's held together by a prayer, and the sauce was dotted with pomegranate seeds, a very clever counterpoint of acidity and texture to the robust curry. We loved this dish, too, but were rather stuffed, and the portion was gargantuan!
We closed with a light dessert of a cube of pandan ice cream made in a style similar to mochi atop coconut cream and topped with crushed ice. Pandan is a sweet, grassy crop used throughout southeast Asia that has similar phenols to vanilla and coconut, and this version was luscious and creamy, and while I was initially puzzled by the addition of ice, I appreciated the textural contrast!
Nari. What a meal. Easily one of the most breathtaking dinners I have had in some time, and that's not just because of the spicy dish! "Alive" is the word that The New York Times used to describe Chef Pim's cooking, and I can't say I disagree with that assessment. The food is riveting, unapologetic, and at the very forefront of Thai cuisine and Asian cooking in general in America. I'd endeavor to say this might be the most exciting Asian restaurant in the country.