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Good Evening, Vietnam

[whitespace] Tu Lan
David Fortin

Order Up: Possibly the cheapest Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, Tu Lan serves incredible dishes in a seedy, diner-style setting.

Tasty places to eat Vietnamese

By Michael Stabile

Americans are eager to adopt new cuisine, and in the late '90s we embrace melting-pot fusion with the same gusto that our forbearing mothers adopted gelatin salads in the 1920s. Too often, however, we relegate the authenticity of new foods to a quick death, either through fad status (Polynesian PuPus and Swiss fondue) or quick incorporation into the national menu (Cajun, Mexican, Italian).

Occasionally, as in the case of Chinese or Indian cuisine, we canonize it, and though we're less likely to fuse it in our own kitchens, it permeates all levels of dining, from takeout to haute. The most recent ethnic food to achieve such widespread success was Thai cuisine in the early '90s. It now appears in both chic metropolitan venues and suburban food courts next to Panda Express and Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs.

The food of Vietnam, like that of Cambodia, Spain or Jamaica before it, was mildly incorporated during the fusion craze of the mid- and late '90s, in a lemongrass crab taco here or a ginger crème brûlée there, but has yet to substantively capture the national culinary imagination. Even in San Francisco, it has become a side note in the Asian melting pot, and few are able to adequately articulate the sweet and biting difference of Vietnamese food. Perhaps it's our underlying guilt following a poorly executed war, or perhaps we've grown tired of all the urban and ethnic dining choices already available to us. This is a shame; Vietnamese cuisine is one of the most accessible and varied cuisines in the city.

The national dish of Vietnam, pho, is a hearty noodle soup more entree than appetizer. Elephant Bleu offers an excellent grilled seafood version with charred shrimp and chicken, ingredients that provide a nutty edge to a soup that too often is bland and dominated by the flavors of a mild broth. We are used to pureed soups or minestrones filled with overcooked vegetables and noodles. Pho is accompanied by crunchy bean sprouts, chiles, cilantro and lime, which may be added liberally as condiments to the bowl.

Elephant Bleu also serves a lemongrass chicken which is piquant and impressive in its honeyed uniformity but isn't cloying or simple. Green onions punctuate the dish but are surprisingly neither wilted nor raw and retain a fresh vegetal flavor.

cuisine Vietnam Victuals: Vietnamese cuisine has become one of the most accessible and varied cuisines in the city.

David Fortin



Showcasing the evidence of Vietnam's midcentury French occupation, Le Cheval in Oakland offers a phenomenal cured raw beef salad. Crumbled peanuts and a sweet sesame-ginger dipping sauce temper the lemon-soaked aggressiveness of the beef, which is bleached to the color of pork or veal. The crab and asparagus soup, which is dense with an egg-white base, is a welcome change from the canned flavor of western preparations of the vegetable. Unfortunately, the entrees left me wanting stronger or spicier accents and better cuts of meat. The common catfish in a clay pot was cooked in a briny and burnt reduction and was earthier than I prefer.

On 16th Street, Sunflower Authentic Vietnamese Restaurant offers a heavier interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine that is rich and grabbing despite its occasionally greasy undertones. The mint and spinach imperial rolls, a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, are light and enjoyable here, with split prawns to provide depth to the cellophane- bound appetizer.

The deep-fried soft-shell crab is unnecessarily caloric and incorporates an off-putting liver, but reminds one of the necessity in poorer countries of consuming the entire animal. Sunflower's Five Spice Chicken was so deliciously juicy and tender that I nearly mistook it for confit. The spices were robust coriander and nutmeg, with little of the heat found in its Chinese equivalent.

The Slanted Door on Valencia balances street chic and high-end presentation, but it employs Vietnam as a source of inspiration rather than as a rigid culinary boundary. The Sonoma Muscovy duck was moist and tender, and it perfectly matched its apple and watercress accompaniment, but the peanut dipping sauce merely hinted at indigenous ingredients.

The Niman Ranch lamb was a masterfully prepared cut of meat, but the ginger-tamarind sauce was the only distinction between the Slanted Door and other upscale restaurants. The entrees were a refreshing change, however, from the Vietnamese pork dumplings and the sweet-corn and crab soup, which were served as appetizers. Instead of rich, mouth-challenging starters, the Slanted Door served us nutritious filler. I thank the waiter for recommending the grapefruit, jicama and pecan salad, which finally jolted my tongue into high gear. Considering the price, I want to make sure I'm alert for the meal.

Possibly the cheapest Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, Tu Lan is also the best. A crude rendering of Julia Child eating Tu Lan's pho graces the cover of the menu, along with praise from Herb Caen. Though the references may seem out of place in a cramped storefront restaurant, they're not.

The mountain of ginger chicken is nasally spicy, like wasabi, but sides of delicate steamed rice mute its intensity. Likewise, the chicken with mixed vegetables burns with the power of raw chile, scorching the back of your throat and leaving you out of breath, like a two-mile sprint. The shrimp, pork, chicken, vegetables with crispy noodles are less potent than the other dishes, but mingle the brittle with the tender and the robust with the sweet in a symphony of flavor and texture. It may be too seedy for a first date or a familial outing, but Tu Lan's far too good to miss.


Elephant Bleu, 3232 16th St., 415/553-6062; Le Cheval, 1007 Clay St., Oakland, 510/763-8495; Sunflower Authentic Vietnamese Restaurant, 3111 16th St. at Valencia, 415/626-5022; The Slanted Door, 584 Valencia St., 415/861-8032; Tu Lan Restaurant, 8 Sixth St., 415/626-0927.

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From the November 16-29, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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