Chef Heena Patel is standing in the center of her restaurant, Besharam, in a marigold sari during the middle of lunch service. The diners don’t seem distracted from their saucy dal fritters, stuffed parathas, and roti tacos, but even if they were, it doesn’t seem like the chef would particularly care. After all, Besharam was recently named Eater SF’s restaurant of the year.
“You have no idea how much that recognition means to me,” Patel glows. “Because I don’t have any culinary training, it means so much to me to be recognized as a real chef. My heart was so warm. I was crying and smiling at the same time.”
Besharam won the honor in 2019 — and made a somewhat unorthodox choice for an award Eater typically gives to new restaurants, given that it opened in May of 2018. Patel had come up through the La Cocina incubator kitchen, which matched her with the Alta Group restaurateur Daniel Patterson as an initial partner in the business. But as Patteron’s partnerships dissolved last year, Patel got her own financing, took control of the restaurant, and revamped the menu.
Besharam means “shameless” in Urdu, and today, the restaurant lives up to the name. She’s doing Gujarati cuisine, which is regionally specific, mostly vegetarian, and deeply personal — inspired by her childhood memories and refracted through the immigrant experience. “When you walk into my restaurant, you have to be open. You’re going to be trying a new item with a different name,” Patel says. “You can’t come in looking for naan and chicken tikka. You have to trust me.”
Born in a small village in Gujarat in western India, Patel is a lifelong vegetarian who remembers eating lots of legumes and grains when she was a child. “I never saw meat in my life. I didn’t even know the types — what is bacon? I had no idea.” The family farm where she grew up had a pantry filled with mangos up to the ceiling, so when you opened the door, they rained down. She would pile them into her dress, squeeze them between her hands, and suck out the pulp. Today, she laughs a little at restaurant trends — much of what she ate was naturally gluten free and vegetarian, and her frugal mother was fanatically “low waste.”
After Patel moved to California in 1992, she and her husband ran a liquor and flower shop in Terra Linda for 21 years. By the end, she was also managing a neighboring deli (“Can you imagine? So much meat! So many reubens!”). She enrolled in La Cocina in 2013 and started out running a stand called Rasoi Kitchen at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market, where customers expected curry, naan, and samosas, boxed up and ready to grab and go. But after doing a couple of pop-ups at Jardinière and the Progress, her menu started to take focus: She played with Gujarati dal sweetened with jaggery, paratha stuffed with blue cheese, her grandmother’s kitchari (rice and lentils), and coconut chutney. Apparently the Progress’s Stuart Brioza freaked out when he tried the ras malai, a milky dessert infused with saffron and cardamom.
When Besharam finally opened in 2018, the original menu was a compromise with the Alta group. The dozen or so dishes featured five or six animal proteins, rotating through shrimp, scallops, lamb meatballs, and fish curry. Patel trusted the group’s expertise, but it irked her that while no one would question a French chef rolling out a vegetarian menu, “when it comes to a vegetarian cooking meat, I get treated like I don’t know what I’m doing.” That initial menu was more Californian, focusing on familiar ingredients and descriptions. And it changed often.
When Besharam relaunched in 2019, after a few months off, Patel took full control of the menu. She dropped the Californian compromises and refused to meet American expectations for Indian food. “It felt like completely starting over from scratch. … I wanted everything to reflect me.” The Gujarati menu is now mostly vegetarian (including a vegetarian tasting menu option), with only three meat options: fish, lamb, and chicken. She also changed the menu’s structure, adding a separate section for snacks and for chutneys and pickles, for instance. She’ll update the menu seasonally (“I am a farmer!”), but doesn’t want to change it too often, because she’s pushing for deeper connections: These are the dishes she’s always loved and craved, inspired by personal memories.
For example, as snacks, Patel now offers crispy channa (chickpeas), spicy peanuts, and sweet puffed rice. Her family insisted on the importance of offering homemade snacks (never store bought) when guests stopped by, invited or not.
Among the small plates, the dahi wada are thin dal fritters with a thick topping of spiced yogurt, slashed with two types of sauces. Her mother made them as a cool treat for hot days, but Patel smashes them even flatter and crispier in order to load on more toppings, so they’re extra saucy. The dhokla are another favorite street food snack from the hundreds of festivals in Gujarat. Patel would wake up early to go to the markets with her father, and remembers holding his hand while the vendors wrapped the chickpea cakes in newspaper and topped them with crispy fried chiles.
Among the larger plates, the kachori dhokli is Patel’s unique invention. It starts with Gujarati dal, which is almost brothy (Patel loved it so much growing up, she would eat it cold for breakfast). But then she also floats dumplings and pasta in the mix, and tricks it out with lots of non-traditional toppings, from crunchy cabbage to crispy puffed rice.
Patel never gave up on the paratha stuffed with blue cheese, and despite a few haters at the farmers’ market, they now have a fan following. “Paresh’s Paratha” is whole wheat, toasty with turmeric and cumin, folded into layers, and griddled for a light puff. The blue cheese filling is her husband’s favorite. “I love everything that’s stuffed,” Patel confesses.
Thankfully, pickles and chutneys also have their own section and star treatment now. They were a labor of love on the farm, where her mother and grandmother made pickles to last the year. The entire month of November was dedicated to crushing mangos, and they grew their own fenugreek, infusing everything from cheese to ginger. Her mother kept five pickles in the pantry at all times. Right now, Patel is featuring three different version, hitting sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. But clearly, she can’t resist — there are also two secret pickles, not listed on the menu.
To finish the meal, Besharam’s dessert menu always includes the chef’s signature cheesecake, a spin on a dessert she begged for on her birthday every year, which was a drained yogurt sweetened and spiced with saffron and cardamom. She made it into a cheesecake by adding a glucose biscuit crust. When she was little, her dream job was to be the manager of a Parle-G biscuit factory, a household brand name in India. “I wanted to eat as many biscuits as possible,” Patel says. “So I wouldn’t have to share with my sisters. I hated that.”
Besharam is open for lunch Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Tuesday to Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., and Sunday 2 to 7 p.m.
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