Binita Pradhan is settling into her new counter-service restaurant space at 1001 Howard Street, serving her sought-after curries and momos (Nepalese dumplings) — and occasionally pinching herself. “It’s not quite sinking in,” says Pradhan, looking around the gleaming dining room and kitchen designed (pro-bono) by David Baker Architects.
Bini’s Kitchen launched through food incubator La Cocina in 2012, steadily amassing fans at farmers market appearances and Off the Grid food truck gatherings. In 2015, Pradhan added a kiosk at 1 Post Street to serve to-go lunches to downtown diners. But until now, she’s lacked a permanent place to serve sit-down customers — or an open kitchen for them to watch their food being made with care.
“You have to cook it with love,” says Pradhan. “That’s the real beauty of Bini’s Kitchen.”
In that shiny new open kitchen, some of Pradhan’s now 15 employees are busy making momos: They sell about 21,000 a week, their thin, chewy wrappers filled with turkey, lamb, or vegetables and dashed with tomato and cilantro sauce.
“We worked on those wrappers almost two years,” says Pradhan, “And the meat and the spices we put in the food, that’s kickass — sorry about my language.”
The new Bini’s Kitchen is also a space for Pradhan to expand her offerings. She’ll eventually add a brunch menu, and has applied for a license to serve beer and wine, too. For now, customers choose their own lunch combinations, momos, and sides: Order khana rice plates with a choice of gurkha chicken, pork choila, kwati (Nepalese chili), baigun bharta eggplant, or daal. A spice blend with timur, a Nepalese cousin of Sichuan peppers, sits on tables with a “caution” label, ready to add heat to any dish.
Pradhan’s path from Nepal to her new restaurant — depicted in a mural by Jen Bloomer of Radici Studios — has been a difficult one. The chef left Kathmandu for culinary school in Mumbai, working at hotels in India before moving to the Bay Area, where her sister was already living. Once here, Pradhan got married, moved to Mississippi with her husband, and gave birth to her son, Ayush, now nine.
“That’s how my life changed,” says Pradhan. “I didn’t know what domestic violence was, and that’s how the domestic violence situation started. I always felt it was my fault. Then one day, I took my son, and with my friend’s help, went to a shelter in Modesto.”
Pradhan reconnected with her sister, with whom she had lost touch, and found help at San Francisco’s Casa De Las Madres, a domestic violence support and prevention center. In time, she returned to cooking, and a friend told her about La Cocina, a food incubator in the Mission working with woman entrepreneurs. It’s helped launch the careers of hugely successful chefs like Nite Yun (Nyum Bai) and Reem Assil (Reem’s, Dyafa) — now friends of Pradhan’s.
“When Bini first came to La Cocina, she was so timid,” recalls La Cocina director Caleb Zigas, whom Pradhan now likens to a sibling. “She had her brother in law speak on her behalf, and she hid behind a tall toque and her food.”
The contrast to today is incredible, says Zigas. “To see Bini in her own restaurant, proudly standing amidst staff she has grown and cultivated and in such a beautiful space, is to understand what determination, talent, and equitable opportunity can mean.”
Bini’s Kitchen is now open Monday though Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.