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The Return of Azalina’s: The Groundbreaking Malaysian Restaurant Is Reborn in the Tenderloin

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Overhead view of a spread of dishes from Azalina's, including roti tempek and blue pea rice.
A spread of dishes from Azalina's, including roti tempek and blue pea rice. (Jane Sim)

Azalina Eusope fought the good fight. As probably the Bay Area’s most famous Malaysian chef, she kept her two San Francisco restaurants open for as long as she could, burning through her personal savings to avoid layoffs during the roughest stretches of the pandemic. 

It wasn’t enough: Last March, Eusope closed Mahila, her love letter to Mamak street food—the food of her people, Muslim Malysians who speak Tamil and have roots in India. She also shut down Azalina’s Malaysian, her more casual food stall in the Twitter building. It was a heartbreaking end of a chapter for a business that Eusope had built up over the course of a decade, one bowl of noodles and jar of fiery sambal at a time.

But now, Eusope, who describes herself as a fifth-generation street vendor, is ready to give it another go. In a little over a month, she’ll open a new incarnation of Azalina’s at 499 Ellis St. in the Tenderloin. The first day of service is tentatively slated for September 1.

For fans of Eusope’s bold-flavored food, Azalina’s 2.0 will be a reintroduction to many of the chef’s most popular dishes: smoky, wok-charred hokkien mee; coconut-filled sweet potato dumplings; and nests of steamed rice noodles known as rice hoppers. These are dishes you’d be hard-pressed to find at any other Malaysian restaurant in the Bay.

In the foreground, a bowl of turmeric noodles topped with greens, scallions, a charred lemon, and a fried egg.
Azalina Eusope’s mee mamak, one of her signature dishes at Mahila, will occasionally show up on the menu at the new Tenderloin location of Azalina’s. (Jane Sim)

“There are 16 states in Malaysia. There are 30 million people,” Eusope says. But despite the amazing diversity of food in her home country, she says most Malaysian restaurants in the U.S. all serve the same 10 dishes. The new Azalina’s won’t be as tightly focused on Mamak dishes, specifically, but Eusope says her overarching goal will be the same: to expand the way that most Americans think about Malaysian food. 

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“We’re not going to make another laksa. We’re not going to make another satay,” she says. “There are thousands of Malaysian dishes that people don’t know about.”

At least to start, Eusope’s plan is to keep things simple. The new Azalina’s will be open for dinner Thursday through Sunday, with a prix-fixe tasting menu only—about five courses, with drink pairings included, for $100 a person. 

The Tenderloin restaurant only seats about 35 people, so the idea is to create an intimate dining experience. “Imagine you’re walking in the evening in the streets of Penang,” where, as Eusope explains, life doesn’t really start until nighttime. The dining room will be lit up with string lights, so diners feel like they’re sitting outside at one of the island’s open-air markets. And dinner will consist of the kinds of dishes you’d eat while wandering from food stall to food stall.

A color sketch of one section of the new Azalina's dining room. Text reads "Perspective of East Wall."
A sketch of one section of the new Azalina’s dining room. (Courtesy of Azalina's)

Dinner might include a plate of char kway teow, a sizzling stir-fried noodle dish. It might include Eusope’s wildly popular Mamak-style fried chicken or rice hoppers served with curry. There might be yong tau foo—fish paste stuffed inside of tofu and all kinds of different vegetables. There will probably be some kind of soup. 

Every dish will be paired with a drink, and Eusope plans to switch up the menu every two weeks or so. “We want to make it really fun,” she says. 

Originally, Eusope had planned to open a kopitiam, or Malaysian-Chinese coffee shop, called Uncle Sok Hee at the Tenderloin location. The restaurant was meant to be a tribute to her father, a Penang street vendor who spent much of his life selling noodles in front of these coffee shops. Eusope remembers accompanying him as a kid, helping her father sell lottery tickets to the kopitiam customers. 

Eusope won’t rule out the possibility of a stand-alone kopitiam at some point in the future, but she says the pandemic taught her to really treasure time with her family. She’s not sure if she’ll ever have the bandwidth again to run multiple restaurants at one time. (Eusope’s two children, now ages 20 and 22, both help out with the family business whenever they can.) 

Chef Azalina Eusope poses for a portrait wearing a blue shirt and pink pants.
Azalina Eusope describes herself as a fifth-generation Mamak street food vendor. (Bethanie Hines)

Still, she says the idea behind Uncle Sok Hee will live on at the new Azalina’s, where many of the dishes will be the kinds of things that you would find served at a kopitiam in Malaysia. That will be especially true when the restaurant starts weekend brunch service, when the $50 prix-fixe will include things like kaya toast cooked on a charcoal grill, hokkien mee and Malaysian-style coffee and tea brewed tableside. 

“My goal has always been the same—to honor every single aspect of my experience growing up,” Eusope says. “Food is very emotional, right? I feel it whenever someone’s eating something, even the smell of it. It somehow triggers some kind of thing in our soul.”

Azalina’s is located at 499 Ellis St. in San Francisco. The restaurant is tentatively slated to open on September 1. Reservations, available via Resy, will be required.

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