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Vietnamese in Japantown

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  • burt Kampfert Nov 30, 2000 03:01 PM
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Hi-I'm coming to SanFrancisco next week, staying in Japantown, and I want to find a really rocking Vietnamese restaurant. Any suggestions for me?

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  1. It's not in Japantown but it rocks for Vietnamese, so long as you're not looking for plush colonial-style decor, etc. Tu Lan at Market and 6th. Some say this is kind of a dicey neighborhood so take care.

    13 Replies
    1. re: Tida

      GAAAAKKK!! The famous 6th/Market Vietnamese restaurant is AWFUL!! I worked within walking distance and gave it several tries before giving up in disgust. The food is sloppily prepared: dripping in oil, sour from age, stale and chinese-ified. The spring rolls were what seemed to be the best item, but we gave up on those after a couple cases of the runs.This is NOT good Vietnamese food !!!
      Back in the '80's there was a influx of Vietnamese families into San Francisco. I worked at several restaurants with Vietnamese cooks, and lived on Post, near the Tenderloin where most of the newly arrived Vietnamese arrived. My co-workers, once they believed I really would like the real stuff steered us to the of coffeeshops and small restaurants like the late lamented Mekong on Leavenworth (?). They opened at 10am, and you could join old Vietnamese men having noodles for breakfast. It was the first place I had shrimp paste on sugar cane, and poked at fish balls, and was introduced to rice paper wrapper, and whole leaves of herbs...
      I travelled in Vietnam about 3 years ago, and ate as much as I could, mostly street food and regional specialty restaurants. The food I ate on that trip really reinforced my sense of how mediocre most Vietnamese restaurants in America have become - and I often lay this blame on the customer who isn't educated about the cuisine, patronizing the cheap and familiar over the more challenging and heart-felt restaurants. A quick example is the variety of herbs presented as 'table salad' with items to be wrapped in lettuce - nowdays you feel lucky to see mint along side the cilantro. At the aforementioned Mekong, I regularly saw herbs I'd never encountered before. It wasn't that they were a 'fancy' restaurant with exotic ingredients, it was just that those were the herbs you _had_ with those dishes. They were proud of their food, and took the trouble to make it right.
      But Tu Lan is within walking distance of the Chron (our solo daily paper now) and so some bushy-tailed intern who probably never ate Vietnamese food outside of Minneapolis decided it was fabulous and gritty with realism (it really is in a pretty skanky neighborhood) and it became a pet restaurant for no reason whatsoever.
      To demonstrate that my poor opinion of Tu Lan is not a function of snobbery.I have the same disdain for the food at Slanted Door in the Mission, though I'll say that I've only made a single trip there. The names might have been the same, but none of the dishes tasted like they did either in those early Vietnamese restaurants, or in my more recent memories of Vietnam.
      I understand that the owner was from a wealthy family, who was cooked FOR, not a cook himself, and those are the cooks I distrust the most, never experiencing the hunger to eat, really..
      All that said, I don't know where to get really good Vietnamese food in SF. There are good places here in Silicon Valley, mostly pho, but it seems far to go....

      1. re: Christine

        Wow! I appreciate your perspective. I'm going to give Tu Lan another chance but I do have your thoughts in mind. My primary experience with Vietnamese food has been in NYC's Chinatown. I can't say that I know what the real thing should taste like but I know what I liked in NYC. Tu Lan is perhaps the thing that comes the closest.

        I share your opinion of Slanted Door. I believe that their food is significantly overpriced, overhyped, and completely removed from a more "authentic" experience. I also find it is difficult to locate good Vietnamese places so can you share some recommendations in the Valley? Far or not, if it's good...

        1. re: Tida

          Hmm, I've never gone to Slanted Door with any preconceptions of it trying to be authentic Vietnamese. I see it as "California(mostly)/Vietnamese" cuisine. Yes, it is too pricey for dinner and quite reasonable for lunch. I happen to enjoy the food there. If you go thinking you're going to get authentic Vietnamese cuisine, you're only fooling yourself.

          IMO, it has one of the best wine lists in San Francisco. If one wants cabernet/chardonnay, this is *not* the list for you. If one is looking for mostly European wines (whites from Austria and Germany, reds mostly from the Rhone and further south), this is the place. It is also exceptionally well-priced for a restaurant list.

          1. re: Larry Stein

            I've always loved TuLan, especially their imperial rolls. I haven't been around there in awhile because I couldn't continue to bear the sight/smell of their food prep area. Has anyone been to Cordon Bleu, home of the 5-spice chicken? Located next to the Lumiere on California at Polk, you have a choice of 5 meal plates with various combinations of rice with divine meat sauce, imperial rolls, pork kebab , and chicken. The #5 with two pieces of chicken, imperial roll, and pork is less than $7 and that is all I need to know. Its been around for at least 20 years and is always busy when I'm there. Check it out!

          2. re: Tida

            Cuz, I had a disappointing experience at Kahn's (sp?) on Winchester in San Jose. Went with some long-time customers so I guess I was expecting more. Pretty ordinary, with notably big portions for not much money. The food seemed thrown together and lacked clarity.

          3. re: Christine

            There are two Vietnamese places that I find decent on Clement Street - Mai's (Clement between 4th and 5th) and New Golden Turtle (5th and Clement). Not fabulous but fairly good and tasty and inexpensive. Sunflower in the Mission is also in that league. I like the claypot catfish at New Golden Turtle although some might find them too salty. Haven't ventured up Van Ness to try the other (old) Golden Turtle though.

            I actually quite like the imperial rolls at Tu Lan. They're chock full of meat the two times I had them instead of being mostly bean thread like at some of the other places I've been to. On the other hand, the BBQ'd meat wasn't very good - tough and dry.

            1. re: Limster

              Pity because the Clement location is closer to us

              1. re: Limster

                Went to New Golden Turtle this weekend & ordered the claypot catfish on your advice, Limster. I echo the rave! The sauce was complex and interesting -- a nice complement that stood up to the catfish, and everyone with me wound up scraping the claypot with our spoons to get a last taste with our rice. Thanks for the tip! I found the rest of the menu kind of hit and miss, though.

                Hits:
                Catfish in claypot!!
                Pork spring roll (not as standout as the catfish, but nice)

                So-so:
                Imperial beef
                Meat-stuffed calamari (sauteed veggies that accompanied the squid had a nicely balanced sauce with a hint of fish sauce)

                Misses:
                Sizzling Rice Soup

                They served our steamed rice in a big serving bowl without a cover -- we had to ask for the cover so our rice wouldn't get cold and dry out. At another point I think they started up the dishwasher in the back, as a strong smell of detergent suddenly permeated the restaurant. Nice people, though. Will try the Van Ness location in the future; evidently it's temporarily closed now (vacation) until February 9.

                Best,
                Deb H.

                1. re: Deb H.

                  I'm glad you liked the catfish. I like that block a lot because Fountain Court, New Golden Turtle, and Mai's are all there and if one is close or full I could just stroll to another.

                  Love to hear about the Van Ness location because many have said that it's a lot better.

                  1. re: Limster

                    It's been a few years since I've been to GT-Van Ness. The one dish I remember is the catfish claypot which was delicious. I keep ordering it at other restaurants and continue to be disappointed. Gotta go back to the real deal. I also remember it because I was with a friend who had just decided to give up all meat. Tasting that catfish dish convinced her that she could be happy with seafood protein alone.

              2. re: Christine

                Try Thai Binh Duong II in the Tenderloin. It has better-than-average food. I like their "Pho" and "Bun Cha Ha Noi". It is true that you can't compare the food in the US with food in Vietnam. But one thing about Vietnamese restaurant is that they tend to have only one or two dishes that are good for each restaurant. So, you go there for only one thing. Like Tu Lan, I agree that they have very bad food, except "Bun Bo Hue," which is actually quite good, I think.

              3. re: Tida

                Yup, Tu Lan is a good place. It is one of the earliest Vietnamese restaurant in SF, too. Try their Bun Bo Hue next time

                1. re: qt
                  m
                  Melanie Wong

                  Thanks for the tip on what's good at Tu Lan. My friends have steered me away from the place and I've yet to check it out. Now I might give it a try.

                  Like Christine, I suspect that its location near the Chron has something to do with its fame. But this is also that place where Julia Child dined more than 10 years ago and pronounced it delicious. The urban legend is that as she was walking in, one of the derelicts on the street looked up from his stupor and wished her, "Bon appetit!"

              4. try the crab entrees - always great