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Finally: Tu Lan [SF]

Tu Lan is pretty controversial in this board: there's no denying it's a greasy dive in a lousy neighborhood, but people disagree about whether or not the food justifies the significant ick factor of of the rest of the experience.

Melanie Wong and I have been on the "no" side of that argument, despite the fact that neither of us had actually eaten there. At the suggestion of rworange, we met with her and Celery at Tu Lan for lunch today to finally earn the right to say "don't go" from first-hand experience.

In order to give it a fair shake, we researched this board and other sources to come up with a list of dishes that would let Tu Lan shine. In the end, we ordered:

#17 Pork Kebab with Imperial roll over rice noodles (bun cha gio thit nuong)
#45 Beef cubes with VN style [sic], aka "shaking beef" (bo luc lac)
#22 VN style Pork or Chicken fried rice (we got the chicken) (com chein thit)
#60 Fried fish in ginger sauce (ca chien gung)
#77 "Ten things (meat, seafood) mixed up in the pot" (lau thap cam)

First things first: it really is a greasy, dirty (tiny) dive. The block isn't too scary at noon, but isn't exactly appetizing, either. The service was brusque (very little English spoken), but very efficient. When our server (an elderly man) realized how much food we were ordering he looked extremely dubious and asked us to verify our order several times. In fact, we probably only ate about half of the food we got. (We had the leftovers packed to go and left them where they could make a homeless person very happy.)

Okay, the food. Having tried it, I can now see the appeal of the place: the food was for the most part tasty, if not very subtle. That can be a good thing when talking about the marinade in the meats or the generous amounts of ginger in the Imperial rolls, but not in some other dishes, where the flavor was boosted by copious amounts of MSG. The main culprits were the fried rice, yellow from the addition of chicken stock base -- which gave it a very intense chicken flavor, but also imparted loads of MSG; and the ten things in the pot, a soup that came in a hot pot with sterno, and was also loaded with MSG (probably the broth). In fact, I actually thought I could *smell* the MSG in the steam. Does MSG have a smell?

The Imperial rolls were everything they were cracked up to be, at least, if you love ginger, pork and crisp fried stuff (and really, who doesn't?). The ground pork filling was juicy and flavorful, and the roll itself was huge -- easily more than twice as big as the typical Imperial roll. I think the rolls here are to Imperial rolls what Joe's Shanghai in NY is to soup dumplings: not very authentic, but darn good anyway. The thin slices of pork were boosted by a marinade that had just a bit of a heat on the finish. The rice noodles were unexceptional, but had the virtue of not clumping together into a sticky lump.

The shaking beef was surprisingly good -- when it arrived at the table, Melanie said the meat looked "desiccated," but although the meat (maybe flank or skirt steak) was chewy, it was moist, and the thin slices made for a bigger surface area that showcased the marinade.

We liked the gingery sauce that came with the fish, but the fish itself was only okay: the two thin fillets (probably basa) were moist, but the batter on the outside was tough, not crisp.

The chicken fried rice and the "ten things" went largely uneaten -- mostly because of the MSG. I've never considered myself to be MSG sensitive, but my mouth still has that dull, sticky MSG feeling, and I have a slight headache.

The bill for four, with two lemonades (not very good, which surprised me, because I usually love the lemonade at VN restaurants) and two VN coffees, tax and a generous tip came to $56. Note that both the fish, and especially the soup, were more expensive than the average dish there.

Would I go back? Probably not. The food was cheap and some of it was tasty, but with so many decent-to-excellent alternatives, I don't have much incentive to put up with the "atmosphere." I think for some Tu Lan partisans the atmosphere has a "reverse chic" appeal, but I don't feel the need to prove my "authentic eats" cred by frequenting Tu Lan. If you must go, I suggest sticking to the grilled meat items, as they seemed to be the best tasting and least MSG ridden menu offerings.

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Tu Lan
8 6th St, San Francisco, CA 94103

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  1. I think most people who like Tu Lan use it as a regular spot in their lunch rotation and have a favorite go-to dish. To go in cold and order a range of dishes for the first time will lead to hits and misses at many places (R&G Lounge is a good example of that).

    1 Reply
    1. re: Gary Soup

      I have no doubt you're right. But being a place in your lunch rotation where you have a go-to dish is a far cry from the way it's often touted. If I worked within less than a 10-minute walk would I occasionally order a number #17 to go? Probably. Is it the best Vietnamese food in the city? No. Would I send a visitor down there, telling them to ignore the "atmosphere" because the food is worth it? Hell no!

      BTW, I personally never recommend R&G, for just that reason. I usually recommend Great Eastern -- the best dishes there may not be as good as the best dishes at R&G, but I think it's more consistent across the board (and since it's less expensive, you don't end up paying high prices for your "misses").

    2. Nice to get an updated report.

      I haven't been to Tu Lan in a long time. My take is that it was about the quantity first and the tastiness second, with a side note that the relative tastiness enhanced the quantity factor, i.e., tasty (not fab) food in heaping piles for not-much.

      As a dining experience or a family style meal with several dishes, I agree -- there's not much reason to go. For a single rice/combo plate, on the cheap, well it works just fine. You know, eating vs. dining and/or stuffing your face vs. enjoying every bite.

      How much is fried rice and/or rice plates now? It was really cheap back in the day for what you got...like $3 bucks for a HUGE plate of food.

      3 Replies
      1. re: ML8000

        The fried rice was $4.50 and was a huge plate of food. But I think anyone who ate the whole thing would suffere a serious MSG overload. As I said, I'm not one who thinks MSG is some kind of awful poison to be avoided -- I think it has its place. But this was off the charts!

        I saw several people digging into huge plates of what I think must have been #20 (Shrimp, pork, chicken, veg and crispy noodle). Sure, it was a lot of food for not very much money, but I can't imagine eating even half of it without being totally sick of it, and I bet the gloppy sauce was another MSG special.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          Wow, $4.50 is still really cheap. I think most people can get two meals out of it. That's $2.25 for two meals you don't have to cook. As to who eats that way...you only have to had hung out with really broke students to see a whole plate of fried rice go in 10 mins.

          Re: MSG, you can ask them to take it easy.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            I had this dish just the night before (Sat). I share it some other people at my table but I just kept eating it. I really liked the garlicy tomato sauce. I wouldn't really think of it as VN rather like Hong Kong style noodles (w/ a nice tomato beef-like topping). It just happened to have Shrimp, Chicken & pork ... and plenty of veggie, much to my surprise. The other items that my three other guest had were just okay (all $4.50 items) I splurged and got the best dish by far (#20).
            I want to go back and try the Shaking Beef. True the interior was icky, but I was surpised how nice the dishes looked when they came out.

        2. Nice report.

          I do think that between the "reverse chic", the decades-old Julia Child recommendation and its a kinda "SF Institution" status, they will always have a fan-base regardless of the quality of the food.

          I haven't been to Tu Lan in a long time but back when I did, I stuck with the salads and grilled things and had a rule to never order anything fried. I do have several vegan friends that eat there fairly regularly that love the section of the menu they can order.

          2 Replies
          1. re: larochelle

            I have been to TL a bunch of times in the past but haven't this year. I fall in that category of "in between" the two sides. I actually like the food there, although I don't consider it a gourmet's paradise. There are certainly other VN restaurants that are just as good. I can also do without the skid row aspect, which is why I don't frequent this neighborhood. But if I am shopping at Nordstrom and don't want to spend a whole lot for food, then TL is an alternative.

            1. My 2 faves are the imperial rolls and the lemon beef salad. Occasionally I'll get something else (something w/grilled pork) but I have been disappointed in almost every sauced dish there. I'd say I don't stop by more than 2 to 3x a year these days, but I'm always satisfied with those dishes. When someone else might want to order something in sauce, I try and discourage it, but when my hints don't work, I end up tasting it, and am usually not thrilled.

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