Sad closure news came this week out of Noe Valley, where local chef and food entrepreneur Azalina Eusope's first brick-and-mortar Malaysian restaurant, Mahila (1320 Castro Street), has permanently closed after just 21 months. Eusope told the Chronicle that the reason was a failed negotiation with her landlord following a year of pandemic struggle has led to this point.
Eusope, a fifth-generation street-food vendor of mamak descent (a Tamil Muslim tribe in Malaysia descended from South Indians), made a name for herself in San Francisco as one of the early success stories to come out of the La Cocina incubator program. She launched her own catering business over a decade ago, made appearances at Off the Grid serving crab tamales and other specialties, and subsequently launched her own line of Malaysian food products that she sold at local Whole Foods locations (you can find those here in her online store). Then came a dedicated stall called Azalina's at The Market, next door to the Twitter building, which opened in 2015 — Tony Award winner Lin Manuel-Miranda reportedly came to eat there often while he was in town for the first Hamilton tour. And in June 2019, she finally realized her dream of opening her own restaurant, Mahila, snagging a prime spot in Noe Valley that had been recently vacated by Contigo.
Only nine months and one Chronicle rave later, the pandemic hit, and Eusope said she burned through all of her savings keeping her employees paid.
"(I) just wish I had more time to do justice to my matriarch, which makes me sad,” Eusope told The Chronicle. "But I am proud of myself. I think depleting my savings to make sure my staff can continue living without fear will be stamped in my mind. No regrets."
The first year in business is generally make-or-break for any restaurant, and Mahila had the bad luck to open when it did, and then try to make do with takeout and limited outdoor dining.
But it's hard to understand why landlords aren't bending over backwards to keep spaces filled, given the uncertainties with the restaurant economy. A similar story emerged last week with the closure announcement from Maven in the Lower Haight — which was also blamed on a failed negotiation with a landlord. Surely having a functioning business in a space is better than leaving it empty for months or years while the restaurant economy recovers and people decide to start opening new businesses again.
Eusope tells the Chronicle that she's looking forward to taking a vacation while she can. And next up she still has plans for two new food stalls — one in the still in-development Oakland food hall called Calabash, and a Chinese-Malaysian coffeeshop she's calling Uncle Sok Hee, that's moving into The Aviary, a restaurant hub coming to 499 Ellis Street in the Tenderloin. As she told Eater last year, the latter will be her version of a kopitiam, the type of Chinese coffeeshop one finds all over Penang, where she is from. It will offer lunch bowls and coffee during the day, and more sit-down style fare at dinnertime. "My father would bring me as a sidekick to sell lottery tickets at all these Chinese coffee shops,” Eusope told Eater, “because that’s what we would do after selling noodles.”
Also, there are some plans that are still on hold to relocate Azalina's, which she did not renew the least for at The Market, to another SoMa location, on Freelon Street.