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Jan 13, 2009 10:32 PM

Wonderful Banh Canh at Tu Kim (SF Tenderloin)

P. Punko’s banh mi mapping project prompted me to head to San Francisco’s Tenderloin last week to hunt for and try places I’ve not been before. At the head of the list of chow finds is Tu Kim’s Cafe on Ellis.

Façade -

Yes, the banh mi is superlative here. The Vietnamese coffee is the best I can recall in the City. And, the ladies behind the counter are as sweet as can be.

Meatball banh mi –

Yet, it’s the noodle soup that puts Tu Kim over the top. Greaseless, sheer, crystalline pure pork stock, the archetypal kind of light and near colorless but flavorful Vietnamese soup I’d given up trying to find around here. It’s not available every day. One of the women explained to me, “Our business is coffee and sandwich. But our customers like to stay here a long time, and they get hungry again. So, we can make noodle soup for them.” There’s a choice of “yellow or white”, meaning yellow egg noodles or white banh canh.

The thick, ropey banh canh, made of rice flour and tapioca starch, were hard to corral, slipping off my chopsticks, bouncing off the spoon, and springing into the soup. The modest-sized bowl of chewy noodles was topped with about a half-dozen thin slices of tender and juicy pork loin rimmed with a bit of succulent fat, some velvety cubes of pork blood cake, two perfectly cooked shrimp (deveined and tails removed even), chopped scallions, a tiny bit of minced cilantro, crunchy freshly fried garlic, and lots of black pepper. A wedge of lemon and a squeeze bottle of tuong ot toi (sambal oelek type chili sauce) were provided as accompaniments. Dazzling in its simplicity and clean lines, this bowl of noodle soup sang in perfect harmony.

Banh canh (noodle soup) -

No menus or price lists posted, so here’s what I know.
Banh mi (meatball or pork combination), $2.50
Coffee, $2.50
Banh canh, $6.00
Prices include sales tax.

Tu Kim Cafe
609 Ellis St, San Francisco, CA 94109

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  1. Gee, that sandwich and soup do look good. Only two types of banh mi? I see they open at 7 am. The only mention on Yelp talks about a fried egg sandwich. I wonder if there is anything different that early in the morning.

    What made you pick the white noodles over the egg noodles?

    4 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      Actually Tu Kim's only offers one kind of banh mi, the classic combo on a regular basis. But the lady said that often they have another kind available too. I might have lucked out being there on meatball day. I hadn't thought about pork stock being a by-product, but having run across pork soup at Hoang Dat, which specializes in meatball banh mi, maybe there is a connection. I haven't run across many pork broths in SF, and the ones that claim to be pork turn out to be dominated by chicken and not nearly as well-made as the one here. To my taste, this had just the right amount of salt, a bit less than usual, and no sugar or MSG to interfere.

      The menu roulette is part of the charm here. Rather than chef's whimsy, it's kind of like being in a guest in a home where you eat whatever your host offers you. So far, so good.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Stopped by this morning. The Vietnamese coffee is very good as mentioned. At 7am they only had the classic combo and this is a nice sandwich that I'm going to finish up later. Excellent roll.

        This seemed the busiest of the Vietnamese places opened that early ... and surprisingly many of them are open that early. Lots of men getting a coffee or sandwich on the way to work.

        Very nice people too. Turns out there was street cleaning today where I parked my car. They said to wait in the car so I didn't get a ticket or towed and they would run my sandwich out to me.

        1. re: rworange

          Did you get a fried egg on it? Last time I stopped by Tu Kim, I noticed a flat of eggs in the fridge, but that was after I'd eaten.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            No. Didn't seem like there was any negotiation. She asked "coffee?". I said "yep" and she moved on. I asked if there was any food available and she said only one type of sandwich. I'll ask next time. I would have hung out a bit and drank some coffee there while watching the food action, but due to the parking situation I had to scoot.