I like a restaurant where the servers are allowed to wear shirts that say, “Don’t Be a Dick.”
In the former Doughnut Dolly space in Northwest Berkeley, just south of Gilman Street and between Philz Coffee and Farm Burger, is just such a place. Supasit Puttikaew’s Funky Elephant is the newest in a fairly substantial crop of Thai restaurants in Berkeley, but it’s the only one I know of with a faux-neon banana in the restroom or where the staff is permitted to be sartorially confrontational.
Although the menu has such Netflix-and-chill comforts as “Pad Thai Old Skool,” this is not your average neighborhood Thai joint. For one, it’s descended from James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare. Syhabout is famously the only East Bay to hold a Michelin star, for Commis, and he has his hand in many other projects, from Commis’ new companion bar CDP to Old Kan Beer & Co. to the remaining Hawker Fare on Valencia Street. After closing the original, he opened a casual offshoot late last year in Temescal called Hawking Bird, and Christ Aivaliotis’ magnificent Uptown Oakland bar The Kon-Tiki also owes its existence to Holy Mountain, the trippy cocktail bar above the remaining Hawker Fare, which is thriving on a strip where many high-profile neighbors have come and gone.
Whew. It’s Hawker Fare (and therefore Hawking Bird, too) to which Funky Elephant maintains its most direct connection. How might that be? Well, Puttikaew was chef de cuisine at Hawker Fare for several years, and the Thai-by-way-of-Singapore poached chicken dish known as kao mun gai ($13) is deliberately called “K.M.G. #2” here, in a nod to its antecedent. The two versions very alike, sliced pieces of bird served over rice with cucumber and cilantro with an accompanying fermented soybean sauce. Funky Elephant’s rice is more garlicky and the chicken is juicier, but you also don’t have the options of getting it either warm or cold or of making it “dirty” by adding chicken livers.
Beyond this high-five to his old boss, Puttikaew’s menu is full of standouts, including the borderline self-deprecating “Party Wings,” which you might almost order by accident. As fried chicken goes from commonplace to omnipresent, the standards have begun to go down. But Funky Elephant’s wings (four for $11) are something else. They’re not sauced, they’re tossed in a chili jam that operates at maximum thickness. It’s insanely good, and comically messy. Eating some outside with lunch one afternoon, it was only through pure chance that I didn’t get a 1990s Era-Plus detergent commercial’s worth of goo on my shirt. A few crisped basil leaves add an aromatic dimension, but you don’t need any more than that on this beautifully done chicken. (N.B.: You can get a half-price, non-spicy kids’ portion.)
The even-spicier dish was the biggest weakness, a green papaya salad ($11) that was too soggy for its constituent parts — among them dried shrimp, snake beans, and peanuts — to add crunch or punch. But the grilled beef short ribs come with a coconut milk and turmeric glaze, peanut sauce, and cucumber relish ($15) is chewy in a satisfying way, the relish a great foil for the char. Sweet and rich, it comes with a scoop of rice dyed blue because it’s made with butterfly peas, something wonderfully fun and authentic that’s probably being pulverized into a wellness trend at this very moment.
The other can’t-miss dish was isaan sausage, a regional Thai street food made from pork with jasmine rice, garlic, and peppercorns over cabbage ($13). Although it was noticeably dry on one visit, it had a fantastic snap and an unapologetic heterogeneous quality that’s so unlike many German-derived sausages. And it’s great with sticky rice, so never mind the rice in the filling.
Focusing on the merits of each individual dish obscures one key point, though, and that is that the presentation and care are noticeable at every step. The crispy hodo tofu with “funky powder” ($9) has a just-so balance of salt-and-pepper, and even the shrimp pad thai ($13) is quite remarkable. “Old Skool” isn’t marketing-speak for hip. It’s a nod to the old country, before that signature noodle dish got bowdlerized for Americanized palates. The entrees’ menu category is called “What a Meal” for good reason.
Because it’s the thing to do — read: People love it and it’s not expensive — Funky Elephant has a rotating soft-serve. The current flavor is mango, whose flavor is so faint that it’s akin to trying to discern Neptune in the night sky unaided, although serving it over sticky rice has a nice texture. In a coy half-dare, a server seemed to encourage us to taste it with some of the dried peppers, only to walk back her suggestion by way of ducking responsibility if we hated it. But we didn’t hate it; the creamy soft-serve neutralizes the heat in an almost one-for-one way, fighting it out across the taste buds.
The question for San Francisco diners is this: Is Funky Elephant enough to lure people from the West Bay? I would say yes — or more specifically, I hope so, if people don’t pay too much attention to the fact that a restaurant with these culinary aspirations clearly relies on a heavy takeout trade. Because don’t be a — y’know.
Funky Elephant, 1313 Ninth St., Suite 120, Berkeley, 510-356-4855 or funkyelephantthai.com