Located on Union Street in Cow Hollow, Betelut serves up Southeast Asian street fare. We’ve passed by it over the years, but never found the right time go. So this past week for our anniversary, we decided make reservations for dinner. Parking proved to be a challenge (expected in this neighborhood), but we found a spot several blocks west passed main Union Street drag. Upon arriving we were greeted warmly by the hostess, who after finding out we were vegetarian promptly recommended several dishes. She also noted that all of their noodle dishes could be made vegetarian; good to know.
The interior of Betelnut has a very 1930s Shanghai with deep red walls, Chinese tapestries, colonial ceiling fans, pagoda lanterns, and dark woods. There is a large open plan kitchen flanked a long bar area where patrons can also eat. Also out front is a lounge with its own separate bar area. Done tastefully, Betelnut doesn’t feel as kitschy as PF Chang’s. However, Both Sheila and I commented at how casual the place felt, which you can’t really tell from street side. The menu consists of small starters (dumplings, skewers, spring rolls, lettuce wraps, short ribs); mains (fish, steak, chicken dishes); noodles/bowls (mee goreng, curries, beef dishes); and sides (veggies, rice). All are prepared with distinctive Southeast Asian spices/ingredients – ginger, garlic, Szechuan chilies, kefir lime, peanut sauce, Thai basil, coconut, and scallions.
We opted for two starters (Happy Buddha Dumplings and Roti Prata), one main (Indonesian Mee Goreng), one side (Szechuan Green Beans), and one dessert (mochi three ways). Service was extremely quick with each dish being served within minutes of each other; almost felt like we didn’t have enough time to savor the food before the next one came out.
The dumplings were filled with tofu, shallots and pea tendrils on top. They were extremely moist, light, and were served with a soy vinaigrette sauce. The balance of flavors made it the perfect starting point for our meal. We both agreed that this was the best dish of the evening. One serving (total of five) is enough for two to share. I recommend ordering this.
The roti prata, pan-fried flat bread, was served with an Indonesian curry and cucumber raita. Although flaky, the roti was a bit too oily and not as soft as it should be. Having been to Bali several years ago and having eaten the original, we have some lofty standards. In addition, when compared to Straits Café (in Palo Alto), the version at Betelnut falls short. The portion size was fine since we had another starter. However on its own, this would not have been enough.
The mee goreng was made with flat noodles, green beans, shallots, tomatoes, and Szechuan chilies. Unfortunately, it had virtually no sauce and thus no real flavor (except if you accidently at the chilies). Expecting to find a punch of spices, we were wondering if this was mee goreng. Again, we’ve had this dish in both Bali and at Straits Café; this was an Americanized version that didn’t hit the mark.
The green beans (ordered as a side) were a huge portion. The garlic flavors overwhelmed the entire dish. My first thought was that we were at a Giants game and someone swapped the fries with green beans. Because of the use of soy sauce, I felt the dish was also too salty and kept having to drink water throughout the meal. Sheila commented that this is an easy make at home dish – with spice and ingredient control could be a real winner.
The mochi balls, Japanese rice cakes, were served three ways in a beautiful presentation: white chocolate with lemon curd; mike chocolate with coffee mouse; and dark chocolate with deconstructed strawberry shortcake. We started light to dark but felt that the outer cakes were too dense – filling to cake ratio was off – not enough chocolate and too much mochi. The accompanying sauces were decadent though – curd provided a nice tart flavor, the coffee mouse was rich and creamy, and the strawberries were sweet (to balance the dark chocolate).
I have to say that Betelnut was underwhelming. We both had high expectations and were left thinking this was merely an elevated PF Chang’s. Coincidently, I lot of yelp and google reviewers have these same sentiments. My vote is for Straits Café.