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A Breakout Berkeley Thai Restaurant Lands on Valencia with Comfort Food and ‘Funky’ Dishes

Funky Elephant makes the leap across the bridge from Berkeley, expanding to a larger space in San Francisco

Dianne de Guzman is a deputy editor at Eater SF writing about Bay Area restaurant and bar trends, upcoming openings, and pop-ups.

When chef Supasit Puttikaew first opened his restaurant Funky Elephant in Berkeley in 2018, it immediately earned praise for his style of Thai comfort food, eventually earning a place in the Michelin Guide and receiving approval from former San Francisco Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho. Still Puttikaew says the restaurant also received complaints in its first year of business — not about the food, but the space. Located in a strip mall off Gilman Street, the restaurant is modest, with only 12 seats. “That’s something in me and my wife’s minds, like, ‘Okay, we should do something to make the customer feel like we have a real restaurant, not a cafe,’” Puttikaew says. “Even how good we do in our service and food, they still want to see a bigger dining space.”

Enter, the new location of Funky Elephant: Puttikaew and his wife Nanchaphon Laptanachai opened a second outpost at 1270 Valencia Street in San Francisco in early July — and it’s more than double the size of the Berkeley spot. The couple previously considered opening in other parts of the Bay Area, such as Walnut Creek, Danville, or Healdsburg, along with contemplating a move out of state, perhaps to Texas or Nevada. But they wound up committing to the Bay Area, landing in San Francisco in the former Barzotto space. It seemed like a fit, given that some of Funky Elephant’s customers, who are either acquainted with the Berkeley location or know Puttikaew from his time as chef de cuisine at chef James Syhabout’s former Hawker Fare, live in the city. Still, Puttikaew and Laptanachai want to convert newcomers into loyal Funky Elephant fans. “I feel like San Francisco food seems to want to be a destination in the nation,” he says, “and this is a good chance to introduce who we are to San Francisco.”

Fans can expect the same favorites from the Berkeley menu to start such as party wings, which are fried until crunchy and tossed in a spicy chile jam made in-house, or the lesser-seen Thai dish yum kai dao, or fried egg salad, where crispy, lacy-edged eggs are placed over grilled shrimp and a salad of herbs, tomatoes, shallots, and finished off in a fish sauce vinaigrette dressing. The familiar Pad Thai Old Skool (as Funky Elephant calls it) is punched up and tossed with Gulf shrimp and Hodo tofu for a take that differs from most other Thai spots; kao mun gai, meanwhile, is shorthanded to K.M.G. #2 and made with gently poached chicken served over a garlic and ginger rice, with a fermented soybean sauce and a side of soup as a complement.

Puttikaew is also ready to start experimenting more with the menu and has plans for more dishes, such as a whole, deep-fried fish, or a family favorite recipe of pork knuckle, which is braised in the oven for six hours and served in its own broth with cinnamon, ginger and garlic powders, and a tangy spicy chile vinegar sauce on the side to cut the fattiness of the pork. “That’s pretty much a traditional dish that we have when we had family dinner,” Puttikaew says. “My dad bought two knuckles of pork and we’d eat for the whole family.” For drinks, there’s Thai tea and a refreshingly tart limeade made with butterfly pea flower, which gives the drink a purplish hue, as well as an assortment of fizzy, carbonated drinks. Beers and natural wines are also available, a mix of local and Thai beers and (mostly) locally made wines.

As for decor, there are a few similarities between the two locations. First, the distinctive elephant logo is front and center when customers walk in, albeit in a larger size to fit the high ceilings. Chairs and stools in bright pinks and greens fill the dining room, with a pink and orange neon sign and moody purple bulbs filling the room with light at night; Puttikaew likened the scene to a nightclub. “People are going to have more fun at nighttime,” Puttikaew says. “It’s like back home at the Bangkok night market with ice cold beer and a few spicy dishes, and they have some fun, loud music.” The open kitchen is also exciting; although Puttikaew admits it’s a tiny bit smaller than the Berkeley kitchen, it makes the Valencia space more interactive. Customers can see the cooks as they grill beef over charcoal, or stirfry the spicy drunken mussels dish, with flames shooting up from the wok in dramatic fashion. Puttikaew also prefers interacting with customers now that there are no walls between the kitchen action and diners, something he can’t do in the Berkeley kitchen, which is stuffed behind a single, swinging door.

It’s a big moment for the Funky Elephant team, but they’re ready to meet the challenge of a new city and a new location, as a mom and pop restaurant, as Puttikaew puts it. “We can be who we are, we’re still being humble, like we used to be,” he says. “On the other hand, we take our cooking seriously and we would like to elevate our Thai food to our customers, keep the same standards like what we do in Berkeley, and we just do what we do — but make it tight.”

Funky Elephant (1270 Valencia Street) is open Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.

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