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Jan 16, 2014 11:57 PM

Chao Mien Pop-up at Naked Lunch in SF’s North Beach: Mien, Lao & Thai

Stumbling upon @ChaoMienSF on twitter quite by accident, my first thought was that this was yet another soul misspelling Chinese words. Digging a little further, I figured out that Mien actually refers to the ethnicity of Laos-born Chef Sarn Saechao. By day he’s the sous chef at Naked Lunch. He labels the cooking style for his pop-up, “Mien inspired, Locally driven”.

I slid in Sunday night to check it out. Naked Lunch’s Ryan Maxey was behind the bar to take my order and open a credit card tab. I asked him to let the kitchen know that I was no stranger to spice and that I loved tamarind. Maxey explained that he and his staff adore Chef Sarn and loved everything Mien that he’d ever fixed for them, so they encouraged him to present his own style of food to the public. The pop-up started last summer on an occasional basis, and now it will be a regular event each Sunday. I asked him to pick a beverage for me that would stand up to the food. His answer: “For Sarn’s spicy food, there’s only one recommendation to consider . . . Trumer Pils.”

First up, Roti stuffed with beef, $8. Paper-thin, shatteringly crisp layers of puffy roti quartered into cupped wedges were stacked with tender butter lettuce, the wet cooling crunch of cucumber and nubs of browned ground beef. A squiggle of “Chao sauce”, turned out to be a fragrant lemongrass aioli. And on top, a scatter of minced Thai basil released its anise-y aroma. The first mouthful was bland-ish in flavor and more about contrasting textures and temperatures, as well as exotic perfume. But then I combined the next bite with the pastel-colored pickles in the center of the plate, and WHAM, everything pops! Tart-salty-sweet pickled carrots, radishes, onions, and other crunchy bits along with some extra lettuce lightened and brightened to balance the heaviness of the oily fried bread and beef.

Next, Pork belly pad thai, $8, and Chef Sarn brought this to my table himself. He said, “I hear you're fond of tamarind and Thai hot, you’re going to like this dish.” I was happy to see the absence of catsup’s telltale red hue. The rice noodles had the perfect amount of firm chew. Scrambled egg, tofu, bean sprouts, chives, and peanuts were named on the menu. I also think I uncovered some bits of salted radish and dried shrimp. The pork belly component turned out to be dryish stir-fry of thin strips and not really adding that much to the dish other than a shine of pork fat. Pad Thai purists will decry the absence of fresh shrimp, and I have to say that I missed shrimp’s sweet flavor and could have used a bit more fish sauce. That said, this was a tasty noodle dish, and the leftovers made a spicy breakfast the next day.

To my knowledge, the only Mien dish I've every tasted before was kao soy from Green Champa Garden in Fremont. So I'm not qualified to opine on the Mien-ness of the cooking here. I just know that I enjoyed Chef Sarn's creations. And the Trumer Pils was the perfect light and refreshing accompaniment.

The prices were quite reasonable for the quality. I’ll definitely return to try more from the menu.

Chao Mien (at Naked Lunch)
504 Broadway
San Francisco, CA
Sundays, 5pm to 9pm

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  1. This is definitely a more contemporary take on Mien food than what I'm used to. The Mien food I'm familiar with are closer in flavor to Lao food.

    3 Replies
    1. re: kclb

      That roti is quite stylized, isn't it? The photos I'd seen of the dish on FB showed two halves, almost looking like a stuffed pita, so the presentation took me by surprise. The runner who brought it out said they'd cut it into quarters to make it easier to share. Guess the kitchen figured that an order for two dishes meant sharing. :)

      Where are you finding Mien food, I'd like to try more. I am jazzed to see the rise of different types of Southeast Asian foods coming forward. Chef Sarn is an alumnus of Cafe Majestic, so he has fine dining experience. Here's his CV,

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        I get my Mien food mostly from my parents and grandparents! We are Mien by way of Laos, much like how Chef Sarn is. The food we cook at home is similar to Lao food in flavor due to the fact my parents were born in Laos.

        1. re: kclb

          Lucky you! Hope you're learning the recipes.

          If you hear of any other Mien or Lao eats via the grapevine, please do let us know. I seem to miss out on the things sponsored by the Lao Iu Mien Association in Oakland.

    2. Thanks for that. I just traveled 7.9 miles (according to Google maps) to try a new Lao food place and now discover this is happening just under my own nose.

      Here's a nice Flicker photo group featuring Mien food:

      1 Reply
      1. re: soupçon

        Reading your report about the new spot in the Excelsior pushed me to talk up this recent meal. I'll be interested to hear your take . . . still sad that I didn't order the dumplings too, but can't try everything in one sitting. Walking across Broadway to my parked car, an inebriated blonde took a look at the pad Thai leftovers in the clear-lidded box and said they looked good and where to get some. I nodded and pointed to Naked Lunch saying that it had just closed for the night. Then she repeated that my food looked really good and asked me if I had a fork so that she could eat some. I declined, and then she lunged for my pad Thai. I side-stepped her readily. So keep an eye out for her and defend your dish.

        Thanks for the flickr link. I'm getting a huge number of hits on these few ChaoMien pictures and not just from this site. I guess there's more interest than I imagined in Mien food. Many of the cooks at Thai restaurants are actually from Laos, and a good number are Mien I'm told. I've been eating Lao home cooking at the Santa Rosa temple for more than a year now and I love the food. I'm jazzed that we have more opportunities to explore the cooking. Lao may be one of the growing food trends locally.

      2. We dropped in tonight, and ordered a roti with short rib, chicken and cilantro dumplings, sticky rice balls with Mama Chao's hot sauce, and the pork belly pad thai. My favourite was the dumplings, tiny (about an inch in diameter) and intense, with glutinous rice wrappers. The roti was not quite what I expected, much more salad-y and light. The rice balls, about the same size as the dumplings, needed more oomph. The pad Thai could have used more tamarind and less sugar, though, as did Melanie, I appreciated its pallor. With a glass of AVBC IPA, this came to $35 with tax and tip. Interesting space, not noisy, and we picked up some chocolate fedora cake at Stella Pastry to have at home.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Prabhakar Ragde

          Thanks for the word on the dumplings.

          I've never run across a roti like that, at any Southeast Asian or South Asian place. The layers are paper-thin, closer to strudel dough than bread. I wonder how he makes them and gets them to puff up to create a hollow in the middle. And that doesn't even address the preponderance of lettuce.

          Sounds like the tamarind lovers among us will need to continue to ask for extra.