Biting into one of Binita “Bini” Pradhan’s momos is transporting. Drizzled with a grilled tomato and cilantro sauce, the warm doughy exterior of the traditional Nepalese dumpling easily gives way to a juicy center filled with turkey and home-ground spices. Bini’s Kitchen is just one of the integral immigrant food businesses that can be found dotting the San Francisco Bay Area.
Growing up in the Kathmandu, Bini’s mother cooked for the Nepalese royal family. Bini spent countless hours watching over her mother’s shoulder, absorbing the recipes, spice blends and techniques of Nepalese cuisine.
I cook from my soul. It is from my mom's heart passed on to me. This is one of the amazing cities where food comes first and I'm part of it.
She was so inspired by what she saw that she enrolled in culinary management school in Mumbai, training as an executive chef in India and Nepal. In 2004, she immigrated to the U.S. to be closer to family.
“I cook from my soul. It is from my mom’s heart passed on to me,” said Bini. “This is one of the amazing cities where food comes first and I’m part of it.”
Bini started cooking out of her apartment in San Francisco six years ago after she escaped an abusive relationship.
Taken in by her sister, Bini dropped off her home-cooked food for families in her neighborhood, until she was introduced to La Cocina, a Bay Area-based incubator program that provides training, affordable kitchen space, and resources for low-income and immigrant women entrepreneurs looking to launch, grow or formalize their food businesses.
Bini was accepted into the program, and since joining, has built Bini’s Kitchen into a thriving catering business, bustling lunch kiosk in SF’s Financial District, a stand at Off The Grid (a must-visit food truck park) and will soon open her first restaurant.
Northern California has always been known as a hub for its forward-thinking food scene, but with seemingly insurmountable barriers to entry for even the most well-funded of operations, the Bay Area is a particular kind of challenge.
Selling food has traditionally been a way for immigrant families to make a living, but beyond access to the enormous amount of capital it takes to open and sustain a smoothly operating restaurant, the reality for many chefs making their way to the U.S. is that immigration status, the gender and racial wealth gap, language barriers, and difficulty translating one’s food to a broader (read: American) audience are added challenges.
Still, it’s the rich culture immigrants bring to the Bay Area that makes the dining scene so extraordinary. And this is where La Cocina shines, leading the way to a more flavorful future and a well-worn path to economic freedom — just ask Bon Appetit, who named La Cocina graduate Nite Yun’s Cambodian spot Nyum Bai to its Hot 10 Best New Restaurant list this year and the James Beard Foundation for nominating Reem Assil of Reem’s California and Dyafa for Best Chef: West.
There's great chefs in every neighborhood selling the food that they grew up with that they love to make.
“I think what makes San Francisco so special is the food that so many different immigrants have brought to this city,” said Leticia Landa, deputy director of La Cocina. “There’s great chefs in every neighborhood selling the food that they grew up with that they love to make. I think that really defines the food culture here.”
Since 2005, the non-profit has helped make the food industry in the Bay Area more inclusive by launching 35 businesses—farmers’ market stands, food hall stalls, packaged snacks, and award winning brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“In our kitchen on a day-to-day basis you might see Mariko in one corner fermenting rice to make her koji, the most incredible pho from Hang at Noodle Girl, Bini’s team from Nepal is all there folding dumplings so quickly, and they’re all there because they love cooking and they love sharing their food,” said Leticia.
For travelers, tapping into the talent sprung from La Cocina serves as a built-in guide for a culinary tour through the Bay Area’s unique immigrant food. Take James Beard-nominated Reem Assil’s Reem’s California and Dyafa in Oakland.
A community activist born in Syra, Reem wanted to bring the vibrancy of Arab street corner bakeries to the Bay Area. Since launching a Mission District farmers’ market stand serving Arab street food with La Cocina in 2015, she’s opened Reem’s California, a brick-and-mortar in Fruitvale, and partnered with acclaimed chef Daniel Patterson on Dyafa, her first full-service restaurant.
Another La Cocina success is Nite Yun, who was born in a Thai refugee camp after her parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Yun’s family was sponsored to move to the U.S. when she was two, and she grew up in Texas, moving to the Bay Area for nursing school.
Still, the ties to her past ran deep, and she longed to know more about Cambodia. After dropping out of school and taking several trips to Cambodia to trace her roots, Nite realized she wanted to share the food of her ancestral country with her Bay Area community and applied for La Cocina’s program.
Nyum Bai, meaning “let’s eat,” was born for years later to celebrate the golden era of Cambodian cuisine. Diners can enjoy machoo kroeng, a traditional slow-cooked beef soup, while listening to Camodian music from the ’50s and ’60s.
La Cocina hosts several dynamic events throughout the year, each centered around the cuisine and stories of its chefs and others in the Bay Area. Each fall, the SF Street Food Festival celebrates culture and community and features more than 30 Bay Area restaurants serving bites and sips at The Power Station in the city’s Dogpatch neighborhood.
Twice a year, the La Cocina team puts on F&B: Voices from the Kitchen, a themed, live storytelling performance sharing stories told by cooks and others in the food industry.
And the incubator kitchen’s food hall is coming to 101 Hyde Street in the Tenderloin. With affordable real estate being one of the biggest barriers to entry for businesses in the Bay, it will house commercial kitchen space and seven permanent kiosks for La Cocina graduates. It’s all part of the greater plan to maintain a bustling and diverse food scene.
Below are a list of must-see La Cocina businesses in the Bay Area. For the complete roster, visit their website.
Known for her Nepalese momos stuffed with turkey, lamb or vegetables and slathered in grilled tomato and cilantro sauce, Binita “Bini” Pradhan of Bini’s Kitchen has gained a cult following in the Bay Area.
Diners can find her cuisine on weekdays at a kiosk in the Financial District, on Friday evenings at Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, and at the Saturday Ferry Plaza farmers’ market.
Born in Mexico City, chef Isabel Caudillo shapes her menu at El Buen Comer using the flavorful dishes and traditions of her childhood. Guisados serve as the backbone of her menu, and these slow-cooked sauces stewed with meat or veggies are served alongside rice and beans.
Chef Veronica Salazar launched El Huarache Loco with La Cocina in 2005. Inspired by her hometown of Mexico City, the basis of her menu is the huarache, or “sandal-shaped” corn tortillas piled high with beans, topped with salsa, cilantro, onions, cheese and cream.
Just across the street from the Fruitvale BART station, diners will uncover Reem Assil’s Arab street corner bakery serving mana’eesh, a flatbread made on a traditional griddle called a saj, topped with olive oil and za’atar with tomatoes and cucumbers or chicken with sumac and aromatics, caramelized onions and arugula.
As if designed for an afternoon of snacking, Nite Yun’s Nyum Bai is just across the street from Reem’s California, serving Cambodian dishes like prahok ktiss, a dip of pork belly simmered in coconut milk with kroeung prahok and palm sugar served with crunchy, seasonal veggies and sweet and sour machoo manor soup with pineapples, tomatoes, tamarind, tofu, mushrooms, basil, mint, lime, and crispy garlic.
The word besharam roughly translates to mean “shameless,” a cheeky adjective for chef and owner Heena Patel’s bold takes on the Gujarati cuisine of her childhood in India and travels throughout the world.
Located in the Dogpatch district within the same space as hip art gallery Minnesota Street Project, Heena commissioned HateCopy’s Maria Qamar to design plateware and a mural to accompany dishes like the notable blue cheese naan with garlic cream, grilled paneer kabobs, and khaman with chutney.
Chef and owner Hang Truong grew up in the south of Vietnam and started working in her mother’s noodle shop when she was just 10 years old. At Noodle Girl, Hang serves vegetarian and grass-fed beef or chicken pho, mango kelp noodle salads, and rice noodle salads at the Noe Valley farmers’ market on Saturdays.