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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.

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. re: Ruth Lafler

              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.

            2. Excellent summary, Ruth

              IMO, Tu Lan is neither as wonderful or horrible as people make it out to be. On a scale from 1 to 10, I'd give it a 4 ... maybe a 4.5 based on quantity and price ... maybe.

              I would not recommend it to a visitor ... in fact, I would be horrified to think that a tourist would get the impression that this is good SF eats ... and you have to keep in mind I'm no expert in Vietnamese food. However, the few midscale Vietnamese restaurants I've been to in the Bay Area far outshine Tu Lan in terms of taste.

              I have a high dive tolerance, so while it defines "hole-in-the-wall", it is .... like the food ... mid-scale on my dive-o-meter.

              Frankly the only thing I liked was the shaking beef and the Vietnamese coffee. If I was waiting to kill time for a show at the theatre, I'd get a cup of coffee. The coffee drips down into the condensed milk and I found it not as cloying as most Vietnamese coffee. So my opinion ...

              #17 Pork Kebab with Imperial roll over rice noodles (bun cha gio thit nuong)

              Ok, I'm going down in history as being the only person in the world who didn't like the famous #17 ... and that includes the imperial rolls.

              I could not imagine eating more than the small piece (1/4 of a roll). It is a pure, dense pork filling, I believe celery detected a vegetable in there, but considering it was Tu Lan I cautioned not to examine the food too closely. I found the unusually thick wrapper made for a rather crude imperial roll the only saving grace being a little ginger.

              The pork was unexceptional, the noodles ... well, lots of them. I would never order this again.

              #45 Beef cubes with VN style [sic], aka "shaking beef" (bo luc lac)

              Dare I say it, I prefer the beef at Tu Lan to the beef at Slanted Door. SD has better sauces and, obviously a better quality of beef, but I always think it is bland and more of an excuse for using the sauce. The Tu Lan beef had more flavor.

              Tu Lan's shaking beef comes with lots of green salad with tomatoes and some slightly greasy, not-bad white fried (?) rice.

              This was the only dish where there weren't (meat) leftovers for the homeless.

              #22 VN style Pork or Chicken fried rice (we got the chicken) (com chein thit)

              Can you say boullion cube? However, as someone said ... not in a bad way. It was ok, but wouldn't order it again.

              #60 Fried fish in ginger sauce (ca chien gung)

              Yeah, fine, nice ginger sauce. I thought the fish had an ammonia flavor to it. Didn't like it at all. And unlike other reports that I've read it is fillets and not a whole fried fish.

              The fish comes with a bowl of white rice.

              #77 "Ten things (meat, seafood) mixed up in the pot" (lau thap cam)

              Uh, beef, shrimp, chicken, pork, baby corn, fresh quartered tomatoes, bamboo shoots , msg, msg, msg. Yes Ruth, we learned today that msg does indeed have an aroma. This comes with a choice of white rice or noodles.

              I don't have an msg headache, but I've been swilling liquids all afternoon. It left me with a powerful thirst ... ah well, that gave me a chance to stop at the Townsend Philz.

              If I worked in the neighborhood I'd occasionally stop by Tu Lan to mix up lunch options. It's ok for cheap eats if in the neighborhood. However, other than the coffee it is unlikely I'd make at a pre or after theatre stop.

              Pretty funny Ruth. I was thinking the exact same title ... only I would have preceeded it with SF.

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

              1. I worked directly across the street from Tu Lan for about 8 years (approx. 1992-2000), so I would describe myself as having had it in my regular food rotation at the time. I was a fan of the imperial rolls, the shrimp fried rice, their version of shaking beef, tofu salad, and the crispy noodles w/chicken, pork, and shrimp. While I would never recommend the place to an out-of-towner (and am always surprised when someone on this board does so), I fall in the camp of thinking that those dishes were satisfying in a greasy but flavorful way. I will add that I pretty much always got the food to go—it enhanced my ability to eat the food without thinking about cleanliness.

                I think I would only add that my observation of the fried rice is that they are using what appears to be a curry powder of some sort, and while it is may not be "authentic" I personally never had an MSG reaction to it. I also never found the crispy noodle dish to be "gloppy," as described by rworange. While I certainly wouldn't suggest that any of you go back and try it (not worth the effort,) it's actually more flavorful that many of the Viet. versions of this dish I've tried, and while it was heavily sauced, it didn't have the congealing quality I would associate with gloppiness. This may be one of those issues, however, where the adjectives doesn't matter--you either think this food is occasionally alright, given some limited options during a work lunch break, or you don't. I haven’t eaten there in 7 years, despite an occasional craving for their imperial rolls, so that pretty much speaks to where it sits in my personal food pantheon.

                1. You formed a judgment without even eating there? Wow! I think their shrimp fried rice is by far ther best I've ever had. Definitely chowhound stuff.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: mpalmer6c

                    Well, unfair to pass judgement till we tried it today. I'm the one who put the kabosh on the shrimp-fried rice because I read the shrimp could be rubbery. I'm curious about what the rice is like in the shrimp version. Is it still heavily chicken boullon based?

                    As long as I'm in this post again, I wasn't the one who described the noodle dish as "gloppy," I didn't recall a glop-factor.

                    1. re: rworange

                      I apologize, I think it was Ruth who actually used the term.

                    2. re: mpalmer6c

                      Here's chapter and verse - a link to the discussion in 2002 where Ruth and I both said we hadn't eaten there because we hadn't heard anything compelling enough in all the posts about Tu Lan to make the effort. Fair enough?

                      Now that I've ordered the most popular dishes, paid my $14 and spent a lunch hour there I can offer a personal opinion that I actively hate the fried rice at Tu Lan in the two examples we tasted. No breath of the wok, slimy wet and greasy, rice is too soft, too much salt, too much MSG, dominated by onions, totally lacking in finesse. I did like the browned bits of fried egg in it.

                      Here's a recent positive report on the shrimp fried rice,

                      Your mileage may vary.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Well worth the price of admission, the ability to give an informed opinion ... $14

                        Being there at the time a new culinary term was coined ... MSG breath ... priceless

                    3. Thank you Ruth and Melanie. You have taken the bullet.

                      1. I remember years ago when I visited Tu Lan. I have never been squimish about my surroundings, so their lovely decor was not an issue for me. I think that I ordered some shrimp dish and was very unimpressed. It was greasy, filled with MSG, and the shrimp was not fresh. My friend convinced me to go back and to try their imperial rolls. I thought that I would never find a better imperial roll than Slanted Door, but there it was this beautiful big fried brick of pork. I have still not found an Imperial Roll that compares. In the East Bay there is nothing that even comes close. EB Imperial Rolls are small, lack that beautiful bubbled crisp rice wrapper, and the filling is generally so-so. They always feel like an afterthought.

                        As far as their other dishes, I never order anything outside of the holy trilogy of the VN Beef(#45), the pork and imperial roll bun(#17), and fried rice(yeah, its greasy and filled with way too much MSG, but I love it) I find it hard to believe that anyone orders seafood dishes here. Their seafood has that spent the last three years in a freezer taste to it.

                        Are there better Vietnamese restaurants out there...of course. But when I am craving an imperial roll that is a meal onto itself, I head over to Tu Lan.

                        17 Replies
                        1. re: IanW

                          Back in my early-90's grungy San Fran days, me and a buddy ate at Tu Lan every week or so. The atmosphere was just another flavor of homey to an me.

                          As for the food, I never ordered anything other than the Cha Giao Bun, the rice noodles with Imperial Rolls and a little salad at the bottom of the bowl, with a little dish of sweet vinegar sauce on the side. Marvelous. Those rolls are to die for.

                          I, too, can't believe someone would order seafood there. Like almost every restaurant, Tu Lan has some good dishes and some bad, but come on. Seafood? Not so much. One must be very careful where one orders seafood, IMO.

                          As for cleanliness, from what I've seen of Vietnam on TV, the better dishes at Tu Lan would normally be served, in Vietnam, in open-air stalls where the sanitation practices make Tu Lan look like a high-tech clean room. And I do wonder what many Americans would think if they could see back into the kitchens of their favorite restaurants. Tu Lan wears its food-handling practices on its sleeve, at least. But after many years in the business, I never noticed Tu Lan doing anything out of the ordinary, really. Most restaurant kitchens are pretty gross in certain ways, inevitably.

                          But the open-kitchen atmosphere at Tu Lan keeps the customer base honest and manageable, I would think. They certainly don't lack for business....

                          1. re: uptown jimmy

                            I can see into the kitchens of my favorite restaurants.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Replying to Robert: of course that is still extremely unusual in most parts of this country. And I've always noticed that the vast majority of restaurants where you can "see into the kitchen" don't actually reveal anything other than the last-minute cooking and plating, activities which are fun to watch and easy to police in terms of cleanliness. What we almost never see is the tedious and sometimes gotesque prep-work that makes up 75% of all kitchen work in a restaurant. You don't see into THAT part of the kitchen too often, I'll warrant you.

                              And yes, in response to a few other posts above, Tu Lan is not, in fact, a frightfully dirty or unsanitary place. Like I said, if you find yourself grossed out by the place, it leaves a little more wiggle room for those of us who love it!

                              1. re: uptown jimmy

                                What people do in the rest of the country is irrelevant. All of my favorite restaurants here have open kitchens or seats where you can see into the kitchen. I don't think that's a coincidence.

                                I don't care that Tu Lan's unsanitary. I care that the food's inferior to half a dozen other cheap Vietnamese dives a few blocks away.


                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Irrelevant to you, perhaps. But not to me. And like I said, I have seen very few places, if any, where you can see into the parts of the kitchen where most of the dirty work is done, unlike Tu Lan. Correct me if I'm wrong.

                                  Thanks for the link. You are the Chowhound link-master, I think.

                                  1. re: uptown jimmy

                                    I don't care what any of you say, I love TuLan. Infact I went there yesterday and enjoyed a fine lunch......... And when I awoke five hours later from the msg induced semi-coma, I was ready to go back for more!

                                    1. re: uptown jimmy

                                      The part of the kitchen you don't see was the door in back of the restaurant next to the table where we ate.

                                      What you see is the cooking area. You are not seeing the kitchen where the prep work is done. I'd be really interested to hear which restaurants you are eating at that you see the whole shebang, Robert. That doesn't stick in my mind. There is often the actual kitchen where the major prep work is done in addition to the display kitchen. About the only place I can think of where the whole kitchen is displayed is One Market ... and that is only on days they choose to open the blinds and when you walk by the kitchen you can watch the whole behind the scenes operation.

                                      What is usually on display, like Tu Lan, is the cooking area which might have some small fridges and prep areas, but most of the real work happens in the actual kitchen behind closed doors.

                                      1. re: rworange

                                        Pizzaiolo, Zuni, Chez Panisse, and Dopo have completely open kitchens. If you sit at the bar at Incanto you can see most of the kitchen.

                                        1. re: rworange

                                          I think the kitchen's completely open and visible at Slow Club.

                                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I have to go with you on this one. There are better alternatives nearby with better options, ingredients and cooking skills in the same price range. Though even those options are inferior to San Jose and Oakland options.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          The pho and bahn mi in Little Saigon have been well vetted and exhaustively reported on, but little has been said about the "rice" dishes and plated specials. Most of the places mentioned in the thread you cited were in other parts of the City, more than "a few blocks" away.

                                          When I worked at Trinity Plaza, I didn't have the luxury of going to PPQ on my lunch hour, and I don't quite see why people keep attacking Lu Lan as a "destination" restaurant when it's just a lunch counter.

                                          1. re: Gary Soup

                                            When people stop recommending it to out of towners as the best Vietnamese food in the city, I'll stop "attacking" it as a destination restaurant.

                                            I don't think I've ever seen excessive MSG noted in any Tu Lan reports, and that's info that a lot of people would want to know.

                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                              You are right on point. On one of my first visits to SF, after reading all those tour books, I was completely taken aback by the location, ramshackle, squalid interior, and the hideously inferior food. However, I thought that maybe I was "missing" something. I will tell you however, that I resented seeking this place out and passing by others!

                                            2. re: Gary Soup

                                              Ngoc Mai, Hoang Dat, and Quynh Nhi are all within a few blocks of Tu Lan.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                Do any of these places serve the same quantity as Tu Lan, at the same price? $4.50 for a huge rice plate is a bargain given most places charge in the $6+ range for the same thing. I'm not saying it's better quality but value is one of the biggest factor in Tu Lan's business.

                                                1. re: ML8000

                                                  According to friends who've know the place for many years, Tu Lan was, but is no longer, much of a bargain. The fried rice is just about the only item on the menu for $4.50. Most everything else is $6 and up, just like all the other VN places in the Tenderloin, and the servings just seem impressive because they include massive amounts of rice. For $4.50, the best buy in the area is a torta (carnitas is my favorite) at Taqueria Can Cun, around the corner.

                                                  I work a block away and Tu Lan used to be on the lunch rotation, but now I may go there three or four times a year (I like the beef with pickled vegetables). Pho Tan Hoa, about 4 blocks away, near Jones and Ellis, has taken Tu Lan's place on the rotation.

                                                  Ruth et al's reviews are right on the money, except I think it's not worth a 10 minute walk to get there.

                                  2. Y'all are trippin...

                                    One, I don't even think they use MSG as I am extremely sensitive and have eaten there 100 times at least. Does Tu lan feed your ego and not just your belly? Not so much.

                                    Great place to go for cheap and quality grub.

                                    If you can't appreciate the atmosphere there are many other places....but please - appreciate it for what it is - a great joint unique to SF - and I always rec it to out of towners...but then again, I love dives! Give me great food and unpretentious service any day!

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: jbyoga

                                      If you like great food and unpretentious service you will get lots of reccomendations from three of the people who ate at this dinner ... Ruth for Oakland taco trucks, me for every restaurant serving food for less than $10 in the greater Richmond area and Melanie for every taco truck in Salinas.

                                      That just scratches the surface of our collective dive dining. I can only say, in that class I've eaten better at divier places ... much, much, much divier.

                                      Everyone has different tastes. Doesn't make your opinion or mine wrong. Just what I thought.

                                      1. re: rworange

                                        True true - glad you went and thanks for the review.

                                    2. A week late, here's a slideshow of the lunch photos:

                                      Glad we could celebrate Julia Child's birthday in style. (g


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

                                      5 Replies
                                        1. re: Melanie Wong

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

                                          That's right, it was near Julia's birthday. She must have been calling to us restaurant heaven.

                                            1. re: rworange

                                              Julia allegedly had the #17 and #60, so this was indeed an homage to her historic meal there!

                                              The boxes of leftover food we left on top of the trash receptacle disappeared fast. The light changed, I walked across Market Street, and when I turned to look back, I saw the last container of the 10-things hot pot disappear.

                                            2. re: Melanie Wong

                                              This may be just a complement to Melanie's slideshow or photo skills, but the dishes look pretty good to me. I haven't been to Tulan but if I could eat with my eyes, I would say tasty food and well presented. Too bad they aren't as delicious as they look.

                                            3. Well, the one and only time I ate at Tu Lan was over 10 years ago, after several co-workers raved about it. So, three of us went for lunch. I don't remember what we ordered, but I remember the heat! We all had sweat literally pouring our faces, even the guy from Singapore who really knows (and loves) spicy food.

                                              Never again.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Philip

                                                Interesting. The nuoc cham (dipping sauce) wasn't particularly spicy hot. What I did like about it was that it had more fish sauce and wasn't as sweet as many.

                                              2. I unhesitatingly recommend Tu Lan to out of town visitors. Here's why. Like it
                                                or not it is one of our great blue-collar eateries. Life isn't all Aziza and Incanto
                                                and while it's one thing to direct visitors to our currently-fashionable high-end
                                                emulations of the cuisine of dreamy destinations, it's quite another to dump
                                                someone into the living culinary history of our city. Probably I get a different sort
                                                of out-of-town visitor than many of you? It's a place to contend with and my friends
                                                are nothing if not contentious.

                                                I'm extremely sensitive to msg and I've never had a problem there with either
                                                the shrimp fried rice or the bbq pork and imperial roll. The soups I've had have
                                                not been good at all. I recommend sitting at the counter and watching -- from there
                                                you can tell that the reason the fried rice doesn't taste like it was kissed by the
                                                wok is because it is not cooked in a wok.

                                                21 Replies
                                                1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                                                  I take out-of-town visitors to great blue-collar places, I just don't think the food at Tu Lan is worth wasting a meal on when nearby are such gems as:

                                                  A La Turka
                                                  Gyro King
                                                  Larkin Express Deli
                                                  Ngoc Mai
                                                  Ngu Binh
                                                  Saigon Sandwich
                                                  Thai House Express

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    I didn't say I *take* them :)

                                                    Here's the address, here's the map, go have an adventure. Days that start out that way seem to always end up with a story that begins, "we had the best time today ..."

                                                    The tandooriloin works well that way and I've never thought of A La Turka but
                                                    that might too. But there's something missing from the others. Not sure what.

                                                  2. re: Chuckles the Clone

                                                    To me in its class it is not at the top. I would have no problem sending someone to Saigon Sandwich, Saigon Grill, etc. Sure, it has history, theatre, of sorts, etc. However to me it is not th best inexpensive Vietnamese food I've had.

                                                    1. re: rworange

                                                      Actually, I think it might be worth taking a tourist because it's not really Vietnamese food. I wouldn't categorize it along with those other restos at all. It's more Americanized, "their version of" Vietnamese food with some history attached. I mean, if people are going to go on about how great San Fran burritos are, surely Tu Lan is not that far of a reach? Yeah, it sounds like it was better several decades ago but still, I drove back to the East Bay thinking it was an interesting meal, definitely different. Great? well, no but then I don't think San Fran burritos are great either.

                                                      1. re: choctastic

                                                        I'm not sure the food at Tu Lan was better 25 years ago when I ate there regularly. I hadn't had any un-Americanized Vietnamese food to compare it with.

                                                        The place is cleaner today thanks to a grant from the Redevelopment Agency for a new hood and ventilation system.

                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          Well, I was thinking of the back of the menu Untermann newspaper clipping that made the food sound better than what I got.

                                                    2. re: Chuckles the Clone

                                                      Indeed, eating vs. dining. A sort of modern day Red's Java Hut. Inexpensive, get in, get out, no nonsense.

                                                      1. re: ML8000

                                                        haha, why isn't Red's Java House the "modern day Red's"?

                                                        1. re: larochelle

                                                          Okay, an up-to-date Red's...blue collar grub. It's harder and harder to find the sub-$5-6 buck lunch that gives you a lot.

                                                          Red's in the 40's for a brew and burger lunch sounds about right. No one (or very few) eats that way for lunch any longer, hence Tu Lan's...or similar places.

                                                          Ted's Deli is along the same lines...and that's why cops go there and you see 30 people in line for lunch. $5 buck sandwich, .75 cent drink.

                                                          1. re: ML8000

                                                            The food at Reds is far less edible (and always was) and far less creative than at Tu Lan. Why is it chic to go to Reds and now, apparently, un-chic to go to Tu Lan?

                                                            1. re: Gary Soup

                                                              I think there are many reasons for people to go or not to both Red's and Tu Lan. I go to Red's because 1) they have a full bar, 2) they have an outdoor patio in a sunny part of town, 3) they have a decent view, 4) they have plentiful parking and lastly, since its by my office (& has been for the past 11 years), I've learned how to order and have found the few things on the menu that I like (their fish & chips, for example). That said, I don't think I go to Red's for food no more than 4-6 times a year.

                                                              On the other hand, Tu Lan is not near my work or home and is thus a special trip place but I have not found their atmosphere, location or food to be special trip worthy. And I've never found a dish there that I crave or think is better than I can get elsewhere. So I've only been to Tu Lan maybe 3 times in the last 5 years.

                                                              Regarding Red's being "far less edible" - I have found their core "bud & burger" has gone way up in price and down in quality, where it used to be simple blue collar food, now its overcooked, dried out dreck. (They used to sauce & grill the bread that and ordering it double-double to get the bread/meat ratio correct went a long way to making it a decent super-cheap meal.) But the some of the menu items they added after they expanded the kitchen are decent blue collar food.

                                                              Which I only discovered because there is very little decent & affordable food in that neighborhood so I have been forced by boredom to experiment and believe me, I've had A LOT of bad lunches over the past 11 years.

                                                              1. re: larochelle

                                                                Never thought about getting the F&C at Red's. Haven't been there in at least 5 years. I'll have to remember it.

                                                              2. re: Gary Soup

                                                                I don't Red's is chic. I use to think it was cool before the ballpark and when it was grungy down there and a few old timers still ate there and the burger and beer was $2 bucks. (pre-quake freeway still standing) For $2 bucks it had character and was cheap and on a crappy weather day...it was like you were somewhere else far away.

                                                                Any way my point is that it was once blue collar food just as Tu Lan is now.

                                                                1. re: ML8000

                                                                  Even in the cheapest cheeseburger-and-a-long-neck-Bud days Red's would draw a contingent of suits at lunch time. Call it reverse chic if you will (or maybe it was cheapskate lawyers who expense it as a $50 lunch), but they were there.

                                                                  The place that really went from blue-collar to super-Yuppie is Pier 23, if you ask me.

                                                                2. re: Gary Soup

                                                                  >>"Why is it chic to go to Reds and now, apparently, un-chic to go to Tu Lan?"

                                                                  I'm not sure either of those statements is true? Back when there was Red's and the place just north of it and the place that looked a lot like it near that boat restaurant near where the ballpark is and the ancient place in the pier directly under the bridge (was that the original Carmen's?), back then there was some chic. Now it's just the only place to get a semi-decent cheap workday lunch while sitting on the actual bay. More or less.

                                                                  Burma Superstar is the new Tu Lan.

                                                                    1. re: Gary Soup

                                                                      Haven't been to Burma Superstar but doesn't sound like they use the same sauce on everything.

                                                                      1. re: choctastic

                                                                        House of Nanking didn't at first, either. Then they found out that it's the the "red" sauce the House of Nan King partisans (a.k.a. HONKies) lined up for. Rumor has it that Coit Tower is filled with a mixture of dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar and opium that is pumped through underground pipes into House of Nanking's kitchen.

                                                                        1. re: Gary Soup

                                                                          House of Nanking BLOWS and should not be compared in any way to Tu Lan - Tourists LINE UP for NK....why?

                                                                          1. re: jbyoga

                                                                            It was being compared to Burma Superstar, not Tu Lan. Burma Superstar is increasingly prominent on the Guidebook radar, and at some point the tourists in line will squeeze out the locals, who will then decide it isn't that good after all. That may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

                                                                            Tu Lan is blessed with a natural defense against hordes of tourists lining up, a Gardol Shield known as "Sixth St."

                                                                            1. re: Gary Soup

                                                                              Hilarious. And that is certainly some small part of Tu Lan's charm.

                                                        2. i went to tu lan today on the insistence of the SO and wasn't impressed at all. he always gets #17 and enjoyed it again today. meanwhile, i got chicken with vegetables, #32 i think, and was totally unimpressed. it was very salty, with a brown thick sauce drowning what was probably a stir fry of small thin slices of dark brown chicken, carrot coins, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and slivers of ginger. it tasted like... the sauce, with the occasional burst of a ginger slice. i think someone in the thread used the term "gloppy." to me, 'gloppy' implies "not smooth." the sauce was definitely smooth. and thick. and dark brown. and shiny. and nearly opaque. and salty. this from a girl who loves salt.

                                                          while i am a fan of ethnic hole in the walls, i wouldn't go back here. i have clean plate syndrome, but could not bring myself to finish even half of my order, nor did i take it to go. i'm still feeling a bit "off." whether or not that is attributable to alleged use of msg, i do not know, but what i ate there is not sitting well with me.

                                                          like ruth and rworange and melanie, i think once is enough for me.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: artemis

                                                            Everything I've read about Tu Lan suggests that at least half the menu is to be avoided at all costs, but also that there are a few things that are above average like the rolls. I ordered something like "VN Style Noodles" last time I went and I got a gigantic plate of flat noodles absolutely covered with the same sauce you describe above. I'll stick to Lotus Garden, thanks.

                                                            1. re: bigwheel042

                                                              My experience over the last several years is avoid anything with any sort of sauce. I don't order any of those things anymore, but sometimes, someone wants to. My handful of staples are great, and when I veer offcourse, I'm disappointed.

                                                              1. re: lmnopm

                                                                Frankly the "handful of staples" thing is very common in mom and pop Asian restaurants. There usually half a dozen good to very good things and the rest of menu is suspect. That's been my experience with many, many Chinese restaurants in SF. The trick is to figure out what's good and not before you burn out. The reason why I stick with it is price and convenience, although some times I just don't have the patience or time.

                                                          2. The bottom line for me is that I think it's a healthy sign for Chowhound that a cheap lunch hole-in-the-wall like Tu Lan gets such an extensive and lively discussion of its merits while TFL simply gets anointed by acclamation from those whose care.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: Xiao Yang

                                                              Agreed, a healthy discussion about a dive is a good thing. I wouldn't say however that FL gets anointed automatically: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/444675 Everything is up to debate.

                                                            2. It has been about a year since I was last at Tu Lan, but here are some comments that I think are still relevant, although I realize I'm late to the game on this thread:

                                                              * DIVEY TU LAN INTERIOR <> LOW HEATH SCORE: Tu Lan currently has a score of 86 from the Department of Public Health, so it's not terrible:

                                                              * CLEAN KITCHEN = GOOD SCORES? Cleanscores.com pulls data from the DPH site above, and you'd be surprised (or maybe not) to see some restaurants on the list lower than Tu Lan. Just because you can see the kitchen and it looks clean doesn't mean they can't score low based on other inspection criteria.

                                                              * BREATH OF THE WOK: It was mentioned that their food doesn't have the "breath of the wok" or "wok hay." Well, last few time I was there and sat at the counter around the stove, they don't use woks. Tu Lan uses those restaurant supply aluminum type skillets, and fill it up until it's spilling over the top. I'd hate to be the one that has to clean the stove top.

                                                              * MSG: Just sit at the counter and watch them cook. They use one end of their cooking tongs like a spoon to scoop up various powered spices (I believe curry was one), sugar, salt, etc. And I couldn't figure out one power for a while since it flowed and dispersed so differently compared to sugar and salt. Ahhh, yes, the crystalline structure of MSG explains that. So to those that don't get a reaction to MSG when you eat at Tu Lan...maybe it's not MSG you're allergic to?

                                                              4 Replies
                                                              1. re: John Doe

                                                                MSG: You might be thinking of the cornstarch.

                                                                1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                                                                  I work near Tu Lan and pretty much only go there for lunch. I make sure I go late, around 2pm to avoid crowds. AND I always sit at the counter to catch the pyrotechnics and avoid feeling closed in by the dingy walls.

                                                                  Pretty much the only things I order are the imperial rolls, Hanoi-style pho and spicy beef soup. I've had other things and been disappointed.

                                                                  1. re: rccola_and_moonpie

                                                                    I've been earing at Tu Lan for a couple of decades. I've never rhad a bad meal there. I wouldn't hesitate to bring anyone to Tu Lan for a meal. The food's good, there's a lot of it, eno9ugh variation in the menu to keep me happy, the price is right and I like the people who work there and am very happy to support them (and their families) with my business.

                                                              2. For the Bun Cha eaters out there, Tu Lan is one of my favorite in all of California. There Imperial Rolls are without a doubt the best I've ever had. I live in LA now and can't seem to find any Vietnamese places with imperial rolls anywhere near as good....they typically end up being boring egg rolls, which I hate.

                                                                Any LA transplants know where I can find IR's that good down here?

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: ElJeffe

                                                                  Yummy Yummy and PPQ, both on Irving, serve some good imperial rolls.

                                                                2. Just found this item 2 years late. I have been going to Tu Lan since 1982 or so and I think it is some of the best Vietnamese food around. I don't live in the Bay Area anymore, so it's been a while, but we were there a couple of months ago and I still liked the food.

                                                                  Yes, it's a block filled with homeless and nearly homeless people, which is awfully sad. Yes, it's a narrow space, dominated by the lunch counter. But the food is fresh and churned out right in front of you at the counter.

                                                                  The portions are large and the prices are modest. They go through so much food each day that everything is fresh. I am addicted to the lemon beef salad, which is loaded with slivers of lemon, beef, cabbage, cilantro and flavor, flavor, flavor. It's enough for 2 to share.

                                                                  1. I tried it for the first time last year and the level of MSG in the shrimp paste fried rice almost blew my head off. I don't even consider myself all that sensitive to MSG, but it was so salty/MSG-y I started tearing. Couldn't bring myself to eat more than a forkful.

                                                                    I also tried the imperial rolls, which were fine, and their version of bun bo hue, which was moderately tasty, but did not remotely resemble any other bun bo hue I've ever had. Instead of cubes of pig blood and a pork trotter with beef shank, it had a few thin slices of beef in a lemongrass-dominated broth (which I actually kind of liked), and rice noodles that were so soft they broke when I tried to pick them up with a fork. Honestly, I didn't think it was possible to gringoize a dish to that extent. It's actually listed on the menu as "spicy beef soup", and if it had not had "bun bo hue" written in small letters directly below, I would never have known that it was supposed to be bun bo hue.

                                                                    3 Replies
                                                                    1. re: daveena

                                                                      Note that this is an old thread that was bumped by the addition of a post that was later removed (including the responses).

                                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                        In response to your earlier comment, I admit I have not been on this board as long as you or many of the others, but unless I'm not searching right, every positive comment about Tu Lan on previous posts has been in reference to it being a good cheap eats place (which I would agree with). I can't find anything that talks about it as a destination restaurant.

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

                                                                        1. re: vulber

                                                                          Here's one from this very thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4323...

                                                                          There's been very little discussion of Tu Lan recently, but if you go back and use date range search from 1999-2007 when I started this thread, there are a number of instances of people proclaiming Tu Lan the best Vietnamese restaurant in the City.

                                                                          here's someone who suggested it in response to a request for a best/"must go" lunch spot: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3643...

                                                                    2. Wing Wings posted this photo said to be a sign posted at Tu Lan that it will reopen in 3 weeks.

                                                                      17 Replies
                                                                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                        I have such mixed feelings. I adore the food at Tu Lan and, yes, it is below health standards. I almost feel like taking up a fund to help them out. The food there is unique....the lemon beef salad, mmmmmm, cheap and flavorful.

                                                                        When I lived in SF more than 2 decades ago Tu Lan was our regular spot.

                                                                        1. re: Discerning1

                                                                          Tu Lan must have gone downhill a lot in 20 years, it hasn't been worth eating at (or dealing with the neighborhood for) in a long, long time. Simply put, there are *many* far superior Vietnamese restaurants not too far away.

                                                                          1. re: od_sf

                                                                            Can you name one or two? I keep trying places and being disappointed, across the board.

                                                                            1. re: bbulkow

                                                                              Anh Hong at 808 Geary St for 7 courses of beef
                                                                              Ngoc Mai at 547 Hyde for any Hue specialty, especially banh canh cua gio heo and bun bo hue
                                                                              Turle Tower at 631 Larkin St for Hanoi style pho
                                                                              Pagolac @ 655 Larkin St for bun thit nuong

                                                                              1. re: od_sf

                                                                                Good choices. I'd add the cha ca at Turtle Tower.

                                                                                Much of what Tu Lan was serving wasn't "real" Vietnamese food. It was sort of a hybrid Vietnamese/Chinese-American. If you expect another Vietnamese place to match-up with your favorite dish at Tu Lan you will be disappointed.

                                                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                  Agreed about the cha ca! Another Hanoi specialty done well at Turtle Tower.

                                                                        2. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                          love the wording: " making major improvements for your comfort and amusement" Go for it!

                                                                          1. re: gordon wing

                                                                            I lol''d when I read that and thought of the quote from Gladiator

                                                                            "Are you not entertained?!? Is this not why you are here?"

                                                                          2. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                            The hearing is today, so any claim about when they're going to reopen is just wishful thinking.

                                                                            The moderators keep removing the posts about it being closed.

                                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                              If true, that's kind of silly. That it's closed is important information about one of the most well-known restaurants in the city. The reason it's closed is factual public information.

                                                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                Folks, just a reminder that while we allow posting of the information that a restaurant has been closed by the Health Department, speculation about or discussion of the reasons is considered off-topic.

                                                                            2. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                              Would Tu Lan have been one of the 1st Vietnamese restaurants in the area? I first went there in the early 80's and their pho was the perfect meal before a grindhouse movie at the Embassy or the Strand. I used to bus down there when I worked in the financial district later in the decade.

                                                                              1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                                                                I know Cordon Bleu was around in the late '70s when I had a friend who lived near there. Supposedly Thanh Long opened in 1971. But Tu Lan certainly is in the first wave.

                                                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                  Yes, I remember the Cordon Bleu from the 70's too. When I was in graduate school in SF it was one of our inexpensive regulars.

                                                                                  We always ordered the combination plate, which, if I recall correctly, had rice with a delicious minced meat sauce, some kind of salad with a nice dressing (was it cabbage?), and crisp savory imperial rolls. Did it include grilled pork? Can't recall. But I loved that meat sauce and the rolls.

                                                                                  1. re: Discerning1

                                                                                    they have a few combos now with various permutations of 5-spice chicken, grilled pork (aka (irc) shish kebab?), imperial rolls, and rice w/ meat sauce (which i don't think i've seen at any Viet place in the US or Vietnam).

                                                                                    i lived 2 blocks from there when i moved to the city in the early 90's. definitely on the cheap eats weekly rotation!

                                                                                    1. re: drewskiSF

                                                                                      You haven't seen the meat sauce at any Viet place in the US or Vietnam because it isn't Vietnamese. Cordon Bleu has been Chinese-owned for many many years (by a lovely lady, btw) and their food is a weird Chinese-Vietnamese-American hybrid that is pretty unique.

                                                                                      1. re: od_sf

                                                                                        Thanks, that makes sense.

                                                                                        It was owned by a different family in the '70s, I think. She may be continuing the recipes?

                                                                            3. KCBS reports they had their permit revoked at the hearing today. They plan to appeal.

                                                                              10 Replies
                                                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                Everything posted about Tu Lan is true. But I have never had Imperial Rolls better than the large ones I used to get there in years gone by. I've never seen that style (much larger than other places) any where else, either here or in Orance Country.

                                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                  The Chron reports Tu Lan has withdrawn its appeal and instead plans to remodel etc. and file an application for a new permit.

                                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                    I wonder if its fans will still love it once the dirty dive cool factor is gone?

                                                                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                      I have gone for the flavor, not the terrible neighborhood or restaurant hygiene.

                                                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                        It was never cool to go imo...but rather inexpensive, huge portions and relatively decent taste. If one of those three factors go, the formula changes and I don't think people will be inclined, or another factor has to happen.

                                                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                          I think the Shrimp Fried Rice and the Imperial Rolls were two great reasons to go... the cheap prices helped too. I don't go to any place for the cool factor or hype.

                                                                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                            saigon sandwich is still popular after cleaning up

                                                                                            1. re: vulber

                                                                                              Saigon Sandwich's problems were relatively minor and it didn't take that much work to fix them. They took the opportunity to increase the kitchen work areas so they can turn out sandwiches faster.

                                                                                              1. re: vulber

                                                                                                Saigon Sandwich never struck me as being dirty, maybe not the cleanest. Tu Lan was the 1st Vietnamese restaurant that I went to, but the neighborhood was a lot scummier than over on Larkin.

                                                                                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                              I don't know how that space becomes ADA-compliant if it is a real remodel.

                                                                                          2. I might as well chime in here, since I actually went once with a small group several years ago to see what all the fuss was about. I mostly agree with the original post, but with a more negative slant. I didn't think the quality of the food - some good, some OK, some not OK - was worth the bad-dive factor, including the location. I see no reason to go back even if they do reopen as a cleaner place.

                                                                                            1. Leah Garchik's column (of all places!) mentioned today that Tu Lan is slated to reopen on June 13.