Chef Azalina Eusope has lived in San Francisco for more than two decades, but memories of growing up on the Malaysian island of Penang still bring her to tears. She vividly remembers the oppressive heat and the smell of her grandmother’s charcoal stove, plus the background clatter of kids making their way to Quran teaching after school. She left Malaysia as a teenager and says she never dreamed of becoming a cook — let alone one of San Francisco’s most prominent Malaysian restaurant owners and chefs — but these days, it’s through food that she both honors her heritage and shares it with others.
During her decades in San Francisco, Eusope has grown her Malaysian food business from a farmers market stall at United Nations Plaza into a fast-casual counter in the Twitter building’s food hall and an upscale restaurant in Noe Valley, though both closed during the pandemic.
But on Thursday, July 20, she’s opening her latest: Azalina’s, a full-service restaurant in the heart of the Tenderloin. A massive mural anchors the sunny space, depicting both a Malaysian streetscape and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. It’s meant to depict the way her cooking brings together her memories of Malaysia and the city she now calls home. “This is me looking out the window,” she says, adding that a pair of friends painted the mural for free. “There’s a lot of community gestures here. It’s not just me.”
At Azalina’s she’ll serve a four-course menu that’ll rotate about every three weeks, giving her the opportunity to highlight the diversity of Malaysian cuisine which is influenced by Indian, Chinese, and Polynesian cultures. She’s careful to note her food isn’t necessarily authentic, but rather a reinterpretation of what she grew up eating in Penang. For example, the opening menu starts with Chinese-influenced Teochew soon kueh, a steamed dumpling that’s usually eaten for breakfast in Malaysia. Here she’s stuffing them with mushrooms for dinner and using kam heong-style stir-fry technique to make a curry-infused sauce.
The second course, a yuba salad, similarly transforms a familiar dish from her childhood. “It’s actually a soup,” she laughs. “Growing up in a village, nothing is elevated. But this is basically dressed-up vegetable soup.” To make this version, she takes all the vegetables she’d usually use in veggie soup, then cooks that soup down until it’s so concentrated she can use it as a salad dressing. Seasonal greens and marinated tofu skins make up the base, along with punches of flavor from fermented lemon.
For the main entree, Eusope hopes to recreate the experience of eating at a Malaysian wedding. “It’s a party for us,” she says, reminiscing about festive weddings in her home country when young adults get dressed up to celebrate, eat, and dance together. At the restaurant, nesi kanduri, which translates to “wedding rice,” means a plate of various components — whereas at a wedding all the food would be laid out as a family-style buffet. Crispy fried chicken might be the star, but Eusope says the most fragrant item on the plate will be the dotted rice that’s made from spice-infused yellow basmati rice that’s stuffed with black sticky rice. She’s also making pajeri, or sweet pickles, which will change with the seasons but for now, feature tart granny smith apples and nectarines pickled with fenugreek and mustard seeds.
The meal will wrap up with sweet potato keria, a deeply personal dish to the chef. The small doughnuts take her back to her childhood in Penang, when she’d sit next to her grandmother as she rolled and fried the fritters in their outdoor kitchen. “It takes me back,” she says, “because I was always there next to her.” She’s serving them over a red date granita with mint jelly and longan.
Eusope says she knows the four-course menu, which costs $100 and includes both a nonalcoholic cocktail and a choice of beer or wine, could put her restaurant out of reach for some diners. But the set menu and price, along with requiring reservations, means she’s able to cook more complex dishes and produce less waste. There will also be the option to do a half menu, meaning just two dishes, for those who sit at the bar that runs along the front windows. Plus, on Wednesday nights she’s opening up just to serve families from the Tenderloin community; they’ll be able to make reservations through a local nonprofit organization and will pay a discounted price for the meal.
It’ll also give people from the Tenderloin community the chance to enjoy the space, which she designed herself and built out with help from friends from around the neighborhood. In addition to the mural, she draped strings of lights across the high ceilings and hung hand-made Malaysian kites — the goal is to transport diners to an outdoor night market somewhere in Southeast Asia. Colorful decor encasing the kitchen creates the illusion of a pergola and Eusope filled shelves with bowls and kitchen supplies from her home. There are photos of the Tenderloin neighborhood along on wall, and the words “I love you” in the various languages spoken in Malaysia cover the bathroom walls.
The restaurant wouldn't have been possible without help from her friends and fans throughout the city and Bay Area and after the tumult of the past three years, Eusope says she’s thrilled just to be opening the doors. Still, the slower times of 2020 and 2021 helped her realize how much time she wants to be available to support her two adult children, who will help out at the restaurant when they can. “It’s wild how I built this,” she says, remembering how her children used to play in UN Plaza while she sold her food at the market years ago. “Life is so mysterious sometimes.”
Azalina’s (499 Ellis Street, San Francisco) opens on Thursday, July 20 and will serve dinner Thursday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations are required and available via Resy. Depending on party size, seating may be available via communal table.