During the opening weekend of the West Side Bazaar, I headed over to 25 Grant St., to sample its new international food court – five food vendors selling traditional dishes from Ethiopia, Burma, Thailand and Peru.
The shared kitchen space was going full steam ahead as smiling family members dished up native comfort foods from a tangle of pots. The cooks serve you from a tiny lunch counter, each with a single range, a few shelves and prep spaces overflowing with ingredients: lentils, greens, potatoes, cilantro, fish, pork and the ubiquitous Chinese noodles. (It’s open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.)
A friend had brought her stepdaughter along for a culinary crash course, so we sampled everything we could get our hands on. Each vendor taps out your order on an iPad, and most offer weekend specials.
A few long tables in front of the takeout windows served as a communal spot to plop down and chow down among the boutiques selling handmade jewelry, shea butter cosmetics and colorful clothing.
Those who have spent time in the San Francisco Bay area have probably come across Burmese cuisine, a Southeast Asian fusion of Vietnam, China, Thailand and India that somehow remains distinct and delicious.
Take dishes like mohinga ($4), an intense fish soup with rice noodles that’s a favorite at Burmese breakfast tables, and oh no kauswer, a mild coconut curry soup, also with noodles and some shredded chicken.
Our oh no kauswer ($5), from Specialty Burmese Cuisine, came with the traditional hard-boiled egg. Like many Burmese soups and stews, it’s thickened with chickpea flour, a nod to its Indian heritage. Without heavier starches like wheat flour or cream, it tastes both hearty and light.
The mohinga tasted like a funky pho, with white fish nuggets (probably catfish), several fish cakes and some fresh cilantro swimming in a bath of fish-sauce scented broth. I added some chili flakes and pounced.
Next came Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine. To sample it in one go, we ordered a combo platter ($10) sight unseen. In minutes we were handed a heaping, four-person serving lined with injera, a spongy sourdough bread you use as a fork, and filled with kik alitcha (yellow split peas), kale, peppers, carrots and a boiled egg. There was beef, chicken and lamb cooked either as tibs (sauteed meat) or wat, a rich stew with onion. The sauces were complex, and the vegetables beautifully spiced. The doro wat, stewed chicken drumsticks, was the star, and my friend said that the entire dish was better than other Buffalo Ethiopian she’s tried.
We even tried some Japanese maki sushi served by the folks behind the Rakhapura Mutee and Sushi counter. As we munched a few spicy Buffalo rolls – “American” flavors are their specialty – owner Khaing Thein explained how they are not Burmese, but Arakanese, an ethnic majority living along the coast of what is now called Myanmar.
At the Pure Peru counter, our 8-year-old taster approved of the lomo saltado ($8) – one of several dishes Peruvians call “chifa” for their combination of Chinese stir-fry technique and South American ingredients. Red onion, tomato, pepper, broccoli and chicken, all lightly spiced and well-seasoned, were served over hand-cut potato wedges. OK, so they were French fries, but served with Latin American spicing, it was hard to call them that.
Pure Peru is run by Martha Sosa, a friendly woman who also owns a catering business. We tried the tamale with chicken, olives, egg and, interestingly, peanuts. I also ordered a crispy stuffed potato ($4), which came skinned, mashed and filled with chicken, olives and a savory gravy. Neither dish was spicy.
As we finished, Sosa handed me a cup of emoliente, a refreshing Peruvian “health drink” made with fruit juices, natural sweeteners, and in Peru, with barley, flax seeds and llantén, or plaintain leaf.
Sosa’s version was based on apple juice, lemon and membrillo, a paste made from the quince fruit. It is “good for women,” she assured me. She pointed to a cob of blue corn sitting in a bowl on the counter, and explained that she makes different emoliente flavors each week, including her favorite with the corn, membrillo and pineapple juice.
Pure Peru serves ceviche ($13) on Saturdays, and you can always get salchipapa ($5, a sliced and pan-fried beef hot dog with fries), papa huanchíana ($5), a salad of boiled yellow potatoes with a creamy cheese sauce, and several traditional chicken and rice dishes ($7-8) with spinach, cilantro, mushroom or a yellow pepper cream sauce. She also offered us some fish with asparagus.
Full to bursting, we waved our hands and promised “next time.” Our education must continue.