Ngoc Mai

January 5, 2007


Ngoc Mai is a Vietnamese restaurant, with an unassuming storefront just off Geary in the Tenderloin. On the outside, not much about it really draws you in, but a glance at the menu will indicate this is not one of the standard (dare we say, mainstream) pho joints that dot the Bay Area. Ngoc Mai does have the more familiar pho and bun dishes featured at other restaurants, but much more interesting is the list of over a dozen specialties from Hue, the once-capital of Vietnam. These special dishes are what set Ngoc Mai apart from most other Vietnamese restaurants in the city.

Short Exact began with an order of the “mini crepes”,


more properly known as banh khot. Like many bite-sized Vietnamese starters, one traditionally eats banh khot by wrapping each little crepe with greens, and then dipping it in the fish sauce, nuoc cham. A superior preparation of the banh khot uses a combination of frying and steaming to produce a uniformly crunchy cup. Ngoc Mai only fries them, so that even though the rims of each cup are crunchy, the bottom portions are slightly mushy. Still, these are tasty little devils, and the perfectly-cooked shrimp, combined with the hint of coconut in the cups, are quite nice. One rarely finds banh khot on menus, so we like to order it when we can find it, and Ngoc Mai’s rendition is generally tasty and pleasing.

Our other starter was the cha tom,


which is a shrimp patty. This was fine, but nothing to write home about. The shrimp patty itself had a very mild flavor, and the nuoc cham with which it is served was — as is typical at Ngoc Mai — too sweet and mellow. The nuoc cham needed to be less sweet and more complex, and it required a brighter element to bring the contrasting elements into focus. A bit less sugar and a greater citrus and chile presence would be a significant improvement.

One of our standby entrees at Ngoc Mai that really make the restaurant shine is the wonderful bun rieu:


If you’re in the mood for a Vietnamese noodle soup, but are looking for something beyond the standard pho options, you may very well want to consider bun rieu. This is another specialty dish that one does not often find, and Ngoc Mai does one of the best versions in the city. The preparations here are sometimes a bit inconsistent, but at its best, this soup has a deep, delicious, tomato-based broth, and is packed to the gills with generous chunks of tomato, crab, tofu cakes, shrimp, and vermicelli rice noodles at the bottom, which are hidden in the above image, taken immediately after serving. Another really good version of this dish, the bun rieu oc — which is this same dish, but with snails added into the mix — is a favorite of ours, but is unfortunately not served at Ngoc Mai. Nonetheless, Ngoc Mai does a really good version of the snail-less soup, and it is one of our standby dishes to order here. When Short Exact is in the mood for bun rieu, we usually head here for it.

There isn’t a shred of ambience at Ngoc Mai, but dining in this very comfy, homey restaurant feels exactly like eating in someone’s kitchen. The service is very helpful and friendly, and it appears that the family really loves to run the restaurant. Preparations are inconsistent; sometimes they are very good, but other times they are less memorable. There is an extensive menu, but not everything on it is great. For one, while their pho dishes are serviceable, there are really much better places to get pho, and we would not recommend coming here just for that. The restaurant really shines in its preparation of the Vietnamese specialties which are not often found in many other Bay Area restaurants, and so the best way to experience Ngoc Mai is to be adventurous and experiment with these less common dishes. Though it is perhaps a bit rough around the edges, Ngoc Mai has a charm all its own.



547 Hyde Street (between Geary St. and O’Farrell St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.931.4899
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm; Sun, 10:00 am – 3:00 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Tenderloin

How to get there: Muni bus lines 2, 3, 4, 19, 27, 31, 38, 47, 49, and 76.



  1. It is so refreshing to finally see a great Vietnamese place that doesn’t just limit itself to serving the pho, bun, and/or banh mi. Although I used to live on the outskirts of the Tenderloin, I never chanced upon Ngoc Mai, but I hope to soon!

  2. look delicious

  3. wow, looks very interesting, I am going to have to visit this spot!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: