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Delicious small plates from the Philippines, Vietnam, and China star at Poleng Lounge 

Wednesday, Sep 2 2009
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You'd have to be living under a rock not to know that the Bay Area has fallen in love with street food. There's the legal kind, sold from licensed trucks as well as from hole-in-the-wall operations such as Little Skillet and Kitchenette. And then there are the unlicensed or informal purveyors, who alert followers to their locations via Twitter and keep one eye out for the gendarmes. San Francisco and Oakland both recently hosted festivals devoted to street food, with some stands even staffed by high-end restaurants getting in on the fun. There are restaurateurs who are influenced by the customs of other cultures, too, the kind we experience vicariously on Anthony Bourdain's TV show No Reservations. His travels recently included a visit to Thailand, where he sat on riverside steps near a floating market and enjoyed a spicy mixed salad and fried shrimp cakes; and Melbourne, Australia, where one street offered a bazaar of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese establishments.

Poleng Lounge offers an attractive and convenient option for hungry locals. It's the place where chef Tim Luym, who grew up in Manila and whose own melting-pot ancestry includes China and Spain, reinvents the street food he fell in love with in Southeast Asia. "A lot of people that travel to Asia are afraid to try the street stalls, for sanitary reasons, so I definitely wanted to re-create those dishes," he said. "They utilize as much of everything as possible, like the pig's head — snout and ears — for sisig in the Philippines. So do we. We do a pork belly dish, and we use the skin to make chicharrones."

Those Poleng Siningang chicharrones ($3) are as big as handkerchiefs: translucent, crunchy, and a perfect salty companion for one of Poleng's exciting and refreshing drinks, both alcoholic and non-. We loved the fragrant Kaffir Cosmo ($8) and the cucumber cooler ($5).

"We used to have a secret menu for customers who weren't afraid of challenging ingredients," Luym says. "The sisig was on it, and it was so popular it made its way onto the regular menu." Its ingredients are listed merely as "pork medley." The cubed meat was combined with diced onions and peppers, amped up with coconut vinegar, and served on a sizzling platter ($12), adorned with a tiny calamansi (a sweet-tart Filipino citrus) to squeeze over it. For $2 more, you can add egg, liver, or chicharrones. The sisig was served in a generous portion; the Vietnamese bo luc lac, aka shaking beef ($11), came in a little bowl that looked doll-sized in comparison. We found its tender chunks of rare filet, stir-fried with nuoc mam (fish sauce) and red onions and served with a heap of peppercress, so seductive that we allowed ourselves a second helping.

Poleng started out offering about a dozen savory small plates, but the rotating menu now features about twice that many, with additional specials. One night our server mentioned pork and lamb satay ($9) speared on lemongrass. We were delighted to find that the pork and lamb had been ground together and seasoned to make a kind of light, fresh sausage, further enhanced by the perfumey herb stalks. Another favorite was the BBQ oysters ($12): five Blue Points on the half shell topped with bacon and scallion oil, briefly grilled, and served with a sauce of lemon juice and lots of ground pepper — simple, easy to eat, and irresistible.

The chunks of island BBQ pork belly ($10), succulent and fatty in a sweet yet vinegary Cebuano-style Filipino marinade, were served with a tart Filipino achara pickle relish of papaya, carrot, and ginger.

China contributes a sesame chicken salad ($8), described as "mixed Asian greens" on the menu but mostly baby spinach on the night we tried it, with shredded chicken and whole spiced almonds. Similarly Chinese-influenced were the tasty long-life garlic crab noodles (bowl $7, plate $15), egg noodles pan-fried with lots of garlic and shreds of briny Dungeness crab.

There's Hawaiian as well as Thai influence in the delicious walu kinilaw ($11.50), diced Hawaiian butterfish bathed in sugarcane vinegar, lime juice, and coconut milk, with minced hot Thai chiles, toybox tomatoes, and cilantro. Heirloom tomatoes shine in the sesame-tinged poke salad ($8), marinated in a vibrant spicy poke sauce — familiar from a Hawaiian tuna dish — and served with daikon sprouts and scallions.

Of the two desserts offered, we tried cute, tiny, dense coconut bread puddings topped with a sweet purple yam sauce ($7) rather than the jackfruit turon (fried eggrolls) served with banana gelato.

We were delighted with every dish we ordered at Poleng. The ingredients were fresh and handled with respect, and Luym has a genius for balancing the traditional salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory elements in his pan-Asian cuisine. Dishes as familiar as ceviche and tomato salad took on new dimensions in his kitchen. And the success ratio was so high, we could have used his menu as a dart board and tried any dish we hit.

After 10 p.m. (11 on weekends), dinner service is superseded by the lounge part of the restaurant's name, with a music program that includes DJs and frequent live music in the back room. But Luym has decided to add another meal service to enjoy in the rather cavernous room, whose dark aspect is relieved by a water feature down one wall and two monitors over the bar that show a constantly changing array of colorful photographs of Asia.

When Poleng Lounge first opened, it briefly served lunch with a menu similar to dinner's. Luym is planning to reintroduce lunch service later this month, but with a special twist. "It'll be like the more common type of Asian street food, like rice and noodle bowls, topped with things like Vietnamese five-spice chicken or pork chops," he says. Everything will be served in to-go fashion, so you can eat it there or take it away, and no menu items will cost more than $8.

If you want to eat your street food in the street, you can pick up lunch at Poleng to go. But why not take a load off and enjoy its creations sitting at a table?

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Meredith Brody

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