“Castro people [are] always supporting us, because we support the Castro,” said chef Kasem "Pop" Saengsawang of Kitchen Story, located on the corner of 16th and Sanchez. Attracting a diverse patronage of teleworkers, teachers, mimosa drinkers, and lovers of its famed Millionaire's Bacon, Kitchen Story has been serving Instagram-ready dishes for over four years.
“The first customer who ate here, they’re still coming back after four years,” Saengsawang said. “That means a lot to us.”
Saengsawang wasn’t initially attracted to the restaurant industry: he graduated with a degree in computer science. “When I was in college, I had to work inside a kitchen,” and the head chef of the tiny Italian restaurant "taught me a lot by telling me what to do,” Saengsawang said, laughing. “What do you do? You say ‘Yes, chef. Yes, chef.’”
But the chef also taught Saengsawang more than simply how to take orders. “He taught me that to make good food, it has to come from a good heart,” Saengsawang said. “As a young guy, I didn’t understand—I’d just do whatever he said. Everyday, he kept repeating, ‘Cook good food from good heart; cook good food from good heart,’ until I felt like 'OK, now I can see.'”
"[The] restaurant business is something that brings out the character of the owner, of the cook, of the people who work there. I feel happy when customers say they love your food and they will come back, or 'See you next time.'”
Saengsawang hasn't completely abandoned his technical interests. He's crazy about graphic design, and hand-draws all of the restaurant's plates before creating them, paying attention to elements like shading, coloring, and placement.
“When you see my restaurant, you see something that caught your eye first,” Saengsawang said. “Nowadays, people eat with eyes, with ears, with smell, with Instagram first before eating ... people want to take a picture of our food because of the color and the plating that we do." The trend has played out well for Kitchen Story, which was named one of San Francisco’s most Instagrammed restaurants in 2015.
Aside from the photogenic dishes, Saengsawang believes diners are attracted to the restaurant's commitment to simple, delicious plates that boast big flavors. “We try to represent a mix of cultures, based on the Pacific side ... California (spicy, avocados, cilantro) and Asian influences. We play around with Thai cuisine for dinner. Breakfast and lunch, we try to get more basic.”
“Everything has to suit the cuisine,” Saengsawang said, “from the music, to the wording, to the lighting.” Even the staff’s aprons were hand-stitched by his wife, to give them a “homey feeling.”
“People love to post 'Hey, I am at Kitchen Story, and this is how I do food,'" Saengsawang said, and sometimes, those photos go beyond just pictures of friends and food. Occasionally, couples will perform the Millionaire's Bacon kiss, with two people eating a slab of the restaurant’s sweet-and-spicy brown sugar bacon from opposite ends until they kiss.
The bacon is so popular, in fact, that Kitchen Story recently launched a social media competition centered around it. “Millionaire's Bacon is already something that wins people’s hearts. But the Millionaire's Bacon VIP card competition is something extra, that makes them feel like a part of us,” said Saengsawang.
Winners of the competition will have the chance to jump the restaurant's long brunch lines once a month for a whole year—an appealing prize for many local brunch aficionados. “Weekends, we've always got tourists,” said Saengsawang. “Castro people love mimosas: ten people, big muscles, big mimosas."
“The Castro is a really good neighborhood,” Saengsawang said. "A lot of people eat out every day with good friends; they don’t cook at home. That is perfect [for a] restaurant. We always cook food with love, and we want you to come and enjoy: the sunlight, the food, and friends.”“Don’t think too much, just come, relax, and enjoy,” said the chef. “That is the main goal: to make people happy when they come through the restaurant.”
Kitchen Story will be holding its Bacon Millionaire VIP card competition through the end of June. Go here for more information on how to enter.