Hawker Fare, chef James Syhabout's often bustling, casual Northern Thai and Lao restaurant at Valencia and 18th, served its last meals on Sunday, adding to a string of closures across the Mission.
"Almost made it to our 9th year short by a few days," Syhabout said in an Instagram post. "With a heavy heart and lack of sleep for the past few days I am sad to announce that Hawker Fare San Francisco has to come to an end, today we celebrate our final day of operations. Hawker Fare will exist forever in spirit and in print."
The "print" Syhabout's referring to is the 2018 cookbook he published, titled Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef's Thai Isan & Lao Roots. The book was co-written by Oakland-based, James Beard Award-winning food writer John Birdsall, whose biography of James Beard, The Man Who Ate Too Much, came out in 2020.
A refugee kid from the Vietnam War, Syhabout and his family settled in Oakland in the early 1980s, where his mom would become a line cook and eventually a restaurant owner. Syhabout went on to become a formally trained, ambitious chef, moving from the kitchen at Manresa in Los Gatos to opening his own fine-dining restaurant Commis, on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue — which remains the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Oakland. Syhabout would soon also be honored with a Best New Chef designation from Food & Wine.
In the book, Syhabout talks about feeling like something was "missing" after this success, and it drove him to return to his cultural roots and open Hawker Fare — which opened first in Oakland in 2011 in a restaurant space where his mother had previously run a restaurant. The concept was inspired by the open-air "hawker" markets of Thailand and Laos, and featured dishes not often found on other Thai menus, like Laab Moo (funky larb with pork and liver); and sai oua a spicy, Isaan herb-and-pork sausage.
The bigger, splashier San Francisco restaurant at 680 Valencia Street, with its upstairs Tiki bar Holy Mountain, would follow in 2014, and it opened to immediate crowds and critical praise.
After some good years and a fairly busy delivery business, Hawker Fare took a hit like everything else in the pandemic, and business didn't recover. Syhabout tells the Chronicle that business remained about 50% of what it was pre-pandemic, in recent months.
"It ran its course," the chef tells the paper, after doing a closing service on Sunday evening. But, he also says that "The condition of the neighborhood has gone downhill with crime and grit and dirtiness" and this is likely "off-putting to the guests."
Syhabout still has a fried-chicken restaurant in North Oakland called Hawking Bird, but it sounds like he won't be trying to recreate Hawker Fare anywhere else. He tells the Chronicle he has "no ambition" to build another version of the restaurant, and he's happy to keep things simple, with just his two restaurants.
As the Chronicle notes, the Mission District was second only to the Financial District in terms of numbers of restaurants closed between 2020 and 2021, with over 100 shutting their doors.
Photo courtesy of Hawker Fare