Before it closed permanently in late February, just ahead of the coronavirus shutdown, Grocery Cafe was one of the East Bay’s top Burmese restaurants — a homegrown success story that garnered national press from publications like Bon Appétit while cultivating cult-favorite status among locals for its unapologetically funky renditions of traditional dishes like fermented tea leaf salad and mohinga.
Naturally, fans of the restaurant were bereft when it shuttered — due to an untenable rent increase, owner William Lue tells Eater SF. But now Lue is back at it, this time in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, with a new, mostly Burmese restaurant called Herbal at 448 Larkin Street, a space Lue had previously operated as a private supper club.
Open for takeout and delivery as of last week, the restaurant features many of Grocery Cafe’s hallmarks: large portions of homey Burmese dishes sold at an exceptionally affordable price point — as little as $7 for a complete meal, with rice and sides. This time around, Lue has added a new wrinkle as well: Some of the dishes at Herbal incorporate dried hemp leaves that he sources from a grower in the Brentwood area.
Whether or not hemp cooking is legal is a tricky question: Lue concedes that he isn’t clear himself on whether there are regulations on restaurants using hemp leaves or hemp seeds as an ingredient. (Ultimately, Lue says of his use of hemp, “If people are opposed to it, I’ll stop.” ) Eater SF’s own inquiries into the matter were batted back and forth between various city and state agencies: A representative of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health redirected Eater to the city’s Office of Cannabis, which, in turn, said the matter fell under the jurisdiction of the DPH. Likewise, California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control redirected Eater SF’s hemp inquiry to the Department of Food and Agriculture’s industrial hemp program — whose representative suggested contacting…the Department of Public Health.
Patrick Goggin, a senior attorney with the San Francisco-based Hoban Law Group who has worked extensively on cannabis and industrial hemp reform, explains that hemp has been legal in California since 2013 and that most of existing regulations have focused on hemp that’s processed in order to extract CBD oil. “The law hasn’t really spoken to the limits on their use in their raw form — or even cooked form,” Goggin says. “Based on that, I would posit that those hemp leaves for cooking… is fully lawful.”
It’s the chef’s first foray into any form of cannabis-adjacent cooking, but his previous restaurant, Grocery Cafe, was arguably known as much for its idiosyncrasies as it was for its excellent food. The restaurant’s original location, before it moved to its final resting place in Jack London Square, was a quirky space, lined with church pews and ‘70s album covers and tucked in a residential neighborhood. Customers in the know could purchase betel nuts, known throughout Asia for their narcotic (and carcinogenic) properties. Before and after the move, Lue himself was known to pull out an accordion to serenade the dining room whenever the spirit moved him.
According to Lue, it’s not uncommon for cooks in Myanmar to use hemp as an ingredient, and he says they’re just one part of Herbal’s overall emphasis on herbs and spices — like turmeric and pickled tea leaves — many of which offer a range of purported health benefits. And he stresses that the hemp he’s using is below the legal threshold of 0.3 percent THC — eating it isn’t going get anyone high, Lue says. “I’m not a vape store,” he says. “I’m not a ‘cannabis restaurant.’”
A good example, Lue says, is his much-vaunted tea leaf salad, which includes the usual mix of fermented tea leaves and assorted nuts and seeds, but with the addition of dried hemp leaves, which add an additional aromatic element. And for customers who really want to taste the hemp, he recommends a samusa and falafel combo. The samusas are the same crispy, thin-wrappered style he used to serve at Grocery Cafe, but the falafels are laced with dried hemp leaves — which, in that preparation, have a distinctive flavor that’s not dissimilar to the way marijuana smells.
Herbal’s menu — which, oddly, doesn’t actually mention anything about hemp — also has plenty to appeal to customers who are just looking for a hearty, inexpensive meal. Not all of the food is purely Burmese — there’s a braised lamb shank dish, for instance, that skews toward Indian and Persian flavors. But longtime Grocery Cafe customers will recognize familiar favorites like the mango chutney pork stew and the chicken potato masala.
As an opening “pandemic time” promotion, which Lue says he might extend until the end of the coronavirus crisis, the restaurant is also offering free mohinga — the Burmese fish chowder — with every order.
As for Grocery Cafe, Lue says he was forced to close the restaurant when its lease expired and his landlord was set to double the rent. Of course, the pandemic has shifted the commercial real estate market, and while nothing’s for certain, Lue says he’s exploring the possibility of bringing Grocery Cafe back — perhaps even in the same location — a few months down the road.
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