Betelnut on touristy Union Street is a luscious destination

Coconut curry laska is filled with noodles, chicken and shrimp.
Coconut curry laska is filled with noodles, chicken and shrimp.

A betel nut is the seed from the areca palm tree, native to many countries in the Pacific Basin. Chewing the seeds in one form or another is a centuries-old cultural custom there.

Betelnut is also the name of a hip restaurant on heavily touristed Union Street in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, near the Marina District. It specializes in Pan-Asian small plates (and a few large ones) fashioned from the “street food” model and upgraded. In our book, it’s the best place on the strip to dine.

It was opened by a consortium that included celebrity restaurateurs Michael (Coqueta) Chiarello and Cindy (Mustards Grill) Pawlcyn, but long ago moved on from their ownership. It’s now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

We dropped by last Saturday, after picking up some hard-to-find magazines at Juicy News. The day was wind-blown, so we passed up a table on the sidewalk cafe-style patio (and ringside seats to the perpetual Union Street sideshow) for a cozy booth inside the marvelously decorated restaurant. As always, service was prompt and friendly, and the lunch menu a study in creativity.

After ordering, we stood near the open kitchen to watch the chef and crew turn out aromatic dishes of chile-crusted calamari and pork short ribs, Dungeness crab-spiked rice and turmeric-marinated sea bass, wokked cauliflower and green papaya salad, firecracker shrimp and Korean flank steak.

Soon, our orders arrived. An intensely flavored bowl of Chinese-Malaysian curry laska (soup) was fragrant with mint and basil. Lo mein noodles mingled with shredded chicken, shrimp and tofu in a just-spicy-enough broth of coconut curry-infused chicken broth. In the end, we sipped the broth straight from the bowl.

Lettuce cups gave a build-it-yourself opportunity to pile a mix of minced chicken, black mushrooms and Chinese sausage onto crisp lettuce leaves, roll them up and dip them into a dark sauce. The wokked meat-mushroom melange was full of chewy texture and deep with pungent tastes. Bonus: pine nuts were part of it.

Betelnut is at 2030 Union St., (415) 929-8855.