About nine months have passed since Azalina Eusope (Mahila, Azalina’s), the Bay Area’s most prominent Malaysian chef, first announced that she was opening a new Malaysian restaurant in the Tenderloin — by sometime in February, Eusope had hoped. A world-altering pandemic put a damper on those plans, but construction on the 20-seat space — part of the new Aviary restaurant hub at 499 Ellis Street — continued apace.
And now, Eusope tells Eater SF, the restaurant is ready to open. Named Uncle Sok Hee, the restaurant will be her version of a kopitiam, the kind of Malaysian-Chinese coffee shop that you can find all over the island of Penang, where Eusope grew up. It will launch sometime in October, with a limited lunch menu for takeout and sidewalk dining.
Eventually, though, Eusope wants to give San Francisco diners a real taste of kopitiam culture — to create an all-day gathering place that serves coffee and kaya toast in the mornings, and quick bowls of laksa and char kway teow plates for lunch, before transitioning into more of a sit-down restaurant at night.
For Eusope, the new project is deeply personal. Eusope says her late father, Muhammed, was a fifth-generation street vendor who dedicated his entire life to selling street noodles. And for most of that time, he set up shop in front of one of those kopitiam — the coffee shops that are so ubiquitous within Malaysia’s Chinese community.
“My father would bring me as a sidekick to sell lottery tickets at all these Chinese coffee shops,” Eusope recalls of the time she spent working with her father as a child, “because that’s what we would do after selling noodles.”
As a Muslim, Eusope explains, her father was technically “breaking the rules” by hanging out at those coffee shops, none of which were halal. But he’d hang out and eat with his Chinese friends — and sell them some of the illegal moonshine he’d made on the side — because that was the kind of person he was. It’s those memories of the time she spent at those coffee shops — and the tastes and smells of the foods she ate there — that form Eusope’s inspiration for Uncle Sok Hee. And the restaurant named after her father’s best friend, Sok Hee, a durian farmer who had a profound impact on her when she visited him during a 2017 trip back to Penang.
In fact, Eusope says, the food at Uncle Sok Hee will consist almost entirely of new dishes that she hasn’t served at her other restaurants — dishes that will skew more Chinese due to the kopitiam concept. For starters, there will be kaya toast, but not the artisanal version that you can now sometimes find around San Francisco. Instead she’ll make hers the way her aunt, a kaya toast street vendor in Penang, does — with roti benggali, a kind of old-fashioned white bread that’s crisp on the outside and so soft inside that you can’t really slice it. Instead, Eusope explains, she’ll split the bread in half and then grill it over charcoal, infusing it with smoky flavor before slathering the toast with kaya (coconut jam).
Since it is is a coffee shop, Uncle Sok Hee will serve coffee, naturally. But instead of serving it with cream and sugar, she’ll serve it the way coffee is often drunk in Malaysia — with butter, for an extra-creamy mouthfeel. There will also be strong tea and a variety of other fun drinks and desserts: grass jelly drinks, soy milk drinks, and tofu hua (a soy custard) served with fried dough sticks. When she starts breakfast service, there will be rice porridge and kway teow fun — white noodles in an anchovy broth.
Indeed, the savory side of the menu will be much more extensive than, perhaps, what most Americans might associate with a coffee shop. At Uncle Sok Hee, Eusope plans to serve char kway teow, a stir-fried noodle dish she says is a classic kopitiam offering. She’ll serve what Malaysians call “economy rice” — rice combo plates, basically, topped with things like roast chicken or roast duck. She serve popiah, a kind of wheat-based fresh spring roll, and yong tow foo — blanched vegetables stuffed with seafood and served with what Eusope describes as a “spicy, crazy-delicious black bean sauce.” She’ll serve Asam laksa, a curry-broth noodle dish made from a mackerel-based fish stock inspired by a famous laksa stand, run by two sisters, at Penang’s Air Itam Market — a different laksa dish than the one she served at Azalina’s.
For many of the dishes, she’ll substitute duck — duck meat, fat, and skin — where pork would traditionally be used.
“It’s not ‘authentic,’” Eusope says. “I never ever try to tell anyone I’m trying to create authenticity. It’s more about the connections I have eating this food and how I can present it here.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic has taken a real financial toll on Eusope’s restaurants, especially given the company’s plans for 2020 to be a big year of growth. Instead, the chef says, she decided not to renew the lease on the original Azalina’s kiosk at the Market, the Twitter building food hall. And while she’s lined up a new home in SoMa — on Freelon Street — for Azalina’s and its fast-casual menu, she’s put those plans on hold indefinitely. Her Oakland project, Calabash — a collaboration with Kingston 11’s Nigel Jones — has yet to announce an opening date. Only Mahila, Eusope’s full-service restaurant in Noe Valley focused on Mamak cuisine, remains open for takeout.
With everything so uncertain right now, the chef says she plans to take things slow with Uncle Sok Hee, opening just for lunch in October as a kind of “practice run.”
“It will be good representation in honor of my dad,” Eusope says.