In spite of her buoyant laughter and easy demeanor, Binitha Pradhan insists that she is very strict.
“It’s very important for me what goes on in here,” she says. “When I come in in the morning, I want to know what’s going on. Even the smallest piece of food which goes out of this kitchen represents [Bini’s].”
Her staff may not always tell her everything outright, but from a quick glance at a sauce, she can determine what ingredients it might be lacking. So how does she know who she can trust? From the way they stir.
“Everybody has their own style, and I wanted my stir to be passed down to my kitchen managers,” Pradhan says. “They cook with the same style, with passion, with love.”
By way of a counterexample, she cites what happens when you have a fight with “your better half” while cooking and then you can all but taste the anger. Instead, she points out her smiling, visibly unharried back-of-house staff.
“They’re very zen and they make it happen,” she says, with pride. “Each and every piece has to have small particles of me, like the touch. The way I do it, no matter what.”
Although Bini’s Kitchen serves items like a Nepalese burrito, she’s mostly famous for one thing: the dumplings known as momos. They come in lamb, turkey, and vegetable varieties, and with this new space, Pradhan wants to add bison (a substitute for the more traditional water buffalo) and yak meat, which she’s planning to source from Montana, calling it “gamey but not too gamey.” Some of the staff wear T-shirts that read, “No Momos, Mo’ Problems.”
Getting here has been a long time coming. For two years, La Cocina’s executive director Caleb Zigas worked with Pradhan on finding a space larger than the kiosk she has operated at 1 Post St. for the past several years. (She also has a longstanding presence at Off the Grid on warm-weather Fridays, the Ferry Building on Saturdays, and Presidio Picnic on Sundays.) They searched neighborhoods from SoMa to the Bayview, but her response was always the same, a “diplomatic face” masking disappointment. Until they peeped into 1001 Howard St. in SoMa, at the corner of Sixth Street, that is. She knew right away it was home.
When you see the right spot, “it speaks to your heart,” Pradhan says. “And this was the spot where I got that vibration.”
She estimates that this Bini’s Kitchen will open in early April. It’s not so much a matter of permitting or city bureaucracy as internal procedures, and she wants to be sure everything is ready — particularly as Pradhan is looking to hire and train two or three more employees specifically to hand-roll momos. Murals already adorn the walls, detailing her rise through La Cocina’s incubator program — a figure representing Zigas is there, with Pradhan’s son on his shoulders — and allegorical scenes from her family and from Nepalese culture, plus artifacts from the Himalayan nation like the god Bhairav. The place is already humming. It might be the busiest not-yet-open restaurant you ever saw, in fact.
The kitchen is as open as the load-bearing walls allow, giving patrons a look at the chopping of meat and the creation of momos. Pradhan is particularly excited about the dried Sichuan peppers known as timur, which she puts in her momo sauce with her own spices and which will be available in a caddy for diners to spice up their food.
“It’s the classic herb from the mountains,” she says. “There’s a male and female, but the female is pungent, aromatic, and strong.”
The daughter of a chef for the former royal family of Nepal and the country’s first aeronautical engineer, Pradhan’s restaurant is on the ground floor of the building that occupies the site of the building that had become a piece of art. In 1997, Brian Goggin took the former Hugo Hotel and added warped chairs, bent couches, and melting grandfather clocks to its exterior, as if the furniture were making a break for it. Defenestration was only supposed to last a year, but it endured until 2014 as an icon of a plucky neighborhood whose human inhabitants — many of them SRO-dwellers with little living space to call their own — spent a lot of time outside.
While Pradhan is undoubtedly a pillar of the Nepalese diaspora in the Bay Area, she admits that she didn’t know that the SRO directly across Sixth Street from her forthcoming eatery was full of Nepalese people.
When someone told her they lived across from her restaurant, she said, “What do you mean, ‘across’? Then he told me, ‘That’s my house!’ Hopefully, we can have people who [live there and] can come over and work.”
She knows that a lot of her Nepalese employees send remittances home, just as she and her sister support their parents, who have developed various ailments associated with old age. (Pradhan points out that she, too, is an employee, so if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid.) On top of the pressure to succeed, for the good of all the people who depend on the financial support her workers provide, she is also a domestic-violence survivor who specifically aims to hire women with similar experiences.
But above all, it’s about the food. Her stated ambition is always to make things her 9-year-old son would eat, not just because he’s her son but because that makes the food relatable to people who may not be familiar with the flavor of momos or the effort it takes to produce them by hand. While Pradhan has acquired a beer-and-wine license and wants to serve mimosas for brunch alongside dishes like deep-fried breaded lamb with sweetened yogurt — she’s also toying with the idea of drag queens — she is adamant that Bini’s remain affordable to people in the immediate neighborhood. Early on, someone smashed the windows, probably anticipating a soulless corporate tenant would eventually occupy the space. Pradhan says she understands.
“People didn’t know what was coming here,” she says. “Hopefully, I can open the door for everybody and let them enjoy the food. The Nepalese community welcomes everybody with open arms.”
Bini’s Kitchen, opening in April, 1001 Howard St., biniskitchen.com