Business & Real Estate

Grassroots distribution brings big-city food to Los Altos

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Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Azalina Eusope’s restaurant dishes translate, with modification, into local curbside food drops.

Los Altos’ latest form of secret dining is welcoming to all comers – a grassroots improvisation of volunteer maitre d’s, with fancy foods in compostably plated takeaway. Many local restaurants have been creating new family meal options and offering takeout on a scale never done before. The occasional big-city offering has started to make its way to Los Altos as well – and that’s bringing flavors and traditions previously impossible to experience in the 94022 sphere of eating.

Months into the shelter-in-place, when Los Altos resident Vivienne Hsu started wistfully craving food from a gifted chef and food entrepreneur she worked with in the nonprofit world, she proposed an experiment.

Azalina Eusope’s Malaysian food enterprises are already legendary in San Francisco circles, but it took the deeply personal ties of woman-to-woman relationships to bring her dishes down the Peninsula.

Felicity and food

Hsu and Eusope talked through a neighborhood delivery model where Hsu would spread the word of a special one-evening opportunity, neighborhood diners would order online, Eusope would fill a van with food from the menu at her restaurant Mahila and drive it down the Peninsula, and Hsu would distribute the takeaway – at a social distance – from her front yard.

They calculated what minimum order size could break even, and, as Hsu put it, “the rest is history.” They met the minimum within two hours of Hsu’s first post about the opportunity, and ended up having 30 families pass by during the pickup window to say a muffled hello through masks and grab a bag of roti with curry, roast chicken, turmeric noodles or kaya jam to go.

Hsu said she got a chance to terrorize her children with the fragrant wonder/horror of Eusope’s durian panna cotta, as well as a reprieve from lockdown doldrums for at least one night. She said the fun of brief, socially distanced catch-ups with friends and new acquaintances made her think that after the era of shutdowns, a block party that re-created this style of grassroots organization and brought in orders from different restaurants would be wonderful to try.

“Once people get comfortable with the idea of bundling orders together, delivery to a home is really not that far-fetched of an idea – it can make business or home events more fun,” Hsu observed.

Eusope said every day still feels like “survival mode,” particularly as the pandemic throws the entire restaurant supply chain into crisis, but as her business has grown, she has been able to revel in the ways it is a “truly passion-driven business.”

“I started this business out of survival. I was about to get divorced, there was no income coming in. How was I going to support my two kids?” Eusope said in an interview earlier this month.

Eusope comes from generations of street vendors.

“There’s stigma and prejudice against it – and I’m telling a story about that experience through my food,” she said. “That’s my focus – to highlight not only my people, but to highlight these generations of street vendors. They don’t really get the nod or appreciation that they deserve.”

Eusope’s roots in neighborhood food served from a sidewalk go back five generations, and her food reflects the very specific flavors of their Mamak Malaysian community, whose traditions stretch back to South India.

Eusope said her ancestors migrated from India during an era of imperialism and trade, when Malaysia was a pivotal trading nexus, situated in the midst of two oceans.

“Some would come and settle, some came through when the British were colonizing India and Malaysia at the same time,” she added.

Eusope’s food combines Indian foodways with a hearty dose of the pungent, herbaceous flavors of Malay cuisine. An infusion of technique from the Chinese community in Malaysia brings soy sauce and rice wine, fermented mustard leaves and black beans, and dishes cooked at high heat in a wok. Black mustard seed meets star anise and orange peel.

Her father worked as a street vendor who sold hand-pulled, Chinese-style noodles accented with roasted turmeric and fennel seed, and she said that for 45 years he sold only those noodles.

“I don’t make fusion food, I make food the way my people make the food,” Eusope said, a distinction that captures some of the excitement her menu sparks in first-time tasters.

Improvised catering

Eusope said she and her employees are like many other restaurants during the crisis: They face days with near zero business coming in. If they want to survive, they must find new ways to serve food.

“Getting support is an amazing feeling. My heart starts blooming bigger than its actual size,” Eusope said of the enthusiastic and swift response from Mountain View and Los Altos eaters when she put out the call for orders.

Trying this new mode of ad hoc, anarchic catering required experimentation: Which foods can safely travel the distance and delays of distributed pickups? How will the presentation of her elaborate dishes, which include many components, suffer over time before they are scooped and tipped from compostable containers?

After the successful test run with Hsu, Eusope turned to a dear friend in Mountain View as the next host, and said she plans to continue the experiment if others want to rally friends and neighbors to place coordinated orders.

“I want to see more restaurants do a similar thing. I want to try some food that I can only find in the South Bay or East Bay,” Eusope said from her own perch in San Francisco.

Find ongoing takeout and delivery food opportunities via posts on Los Altos Takeout and Delivery, an informal group started by residents, at facebook.com/groups/losaltostakeoutanddelivery.

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