Betelnut was a mainstay on Union Street for years, popular among the younger crowd for the lively environment, great cocktails and bar food and also among the foodie type. But Chef Alex Ong and his team made the difficult decision to change things up recently.
“Betelnut was always a really fun concept. But in all honesty, our menu could have been six or seven dishes – most people always ordered the green beans or the lettuce cups, there was a handful of favorites,” Ong said. “It had gotten to the point where things were just not financially viable. We would order our beans from Mexico and if they had a horrible growing season, the beans would cost an arm and a leg, even if the product was substandard. And we would tell our guests that the beans weren’t great, but they would still order them. It was just not feasible anymore.”
So Ong went back to his roots, altering the menu to what his vision of Asian street food is, while “trying to be as honest as possible” with what he is presenting guests of Hutong. “Many longtime customers resisted the change. They told me I was crazy and why ruin a good thing. And on the first night, it was a disaster! We had changed the design of the kitchen and certain stations just got bombarded that night,” Ong said. “Dishes were coming out slow and the flow was off all night. But it’s all part of the learning process. It was like learning to walk all over again.” The kitchen staff has gotten much more acclimated to the menu and the new design of the kitchen, more than a month in now.
Despite the early hiccups, Ong said he’s been as busy as ever at Hutong, with many familiar faces along with newbies who want to try the menu. Speaking of which, the menu is a bit more of what Ong experienced during trips to Asia and the hutongs (the alleys and narrow streets typically associated with Beijing), where street vendors peddle their wares on a daily basis. Gathering inspiration from the foods and experiences, Ong has created a menu featuring dishes that are smaller in portion size, including some of the old favorites with new items – from skewered items, raw dishes and those off the kitchen’s grill. Some of the same principals remain from Betelnut, showcasing the ingredients and relying on produce from farms using sustainable practices. In all honesty, Hutong is Ong’s way of as he says “owning the dishes.” It is all about highlighting Asian flavors that he knows, whether it’s from a street vendor, established restaurant or from his time growing up.
Along with being a highly talented chef, Ong is passionate, thoughtful and well-spoken. He knew going in the challenges of doing a complete 180 when it comes to changing a restaurant concept, especially one as popular as Betelnut was, but he is rolling with the expected bumps in the road. And he’s not afraid to say that he’s constantly learning and if necessary, will change things on the fly – it’s part of being a chef. While the concept, menu and interior may have changed over the last month, the passion still remains at Hutong as it did at Betelnut.
Hutong is located at 2030 Union Street in San Francisco.