Archive for the ‘Cuisine: Vietnamese’ Category

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Pho Tan Hoa

June 25, 2007

Located across Jones Street from the Gazebo Smoke Shop and one of the many “massage parlors” that grace the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Pho Tan Hoa is in a prime location for fans of that particularly colorful brand of street theater that is the hallmark of the Tenderloin. If you are not a fan of street theater, please do not be discouraged, as you could very well be a fan of the tasty noodle soups to be found at Pho Tan Hoa; this restaurant is definitely worth at least one visit. However, if you are a fan of the street theater, make sure to snag a table facing the street: you won’t be disappointed!

Pho Tan Hoa used to be named simply “Pho Hoa”, and the name was changed only recently to “Pho Tan Hoa.” This restaurant is not a member of the huge worldwide Pho Hoa chain, and so we can only assume the name was changed to avoid confusion. Good thing too, because Pho Tan Hoa’s soups are far and away superior to the fare typically offered at the Pho Hoa chain, which — to put it lightly — leaves much to be desired. Pho Tan Hoa is run by very gracious and friendly people, and they are quick to remember and acknowledge repeat customers. As is often the case at pho joints, the service here is usually lightning quick.

On our most recent visit to Pho Tan Hoa, Short Exact ordered the pho dac biet,

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which the menu declares to be a “house specialty,” and rightly so. On top, you can see the slices of rare steak. At some pho joints, slices of “rare” steak are served stewing in the broth, so that they are already overcooked by the time the bowl reaches your table from the kitchen. Here, though, care was taken to make sure that the slices were mostly perched atop the broth, so that the rare slices were actually rare. The above photo shows the slices more submerged than they actually were upon serving, since we had poked our chopsticks in, almost forgetting to take a picture! It was a close call.

We did not do it on this last visit, but for an additional 50 cents, several slices of rare steak are served on a separate plate with an additional bowl of broth, allowing you to personally customize how much to cook the meat.

In addition to the rare steak, our bowl of pho dac biet had plentiful and tender chunks of tendon, strips of tripe exhibiting a nice snap and bounce, and several slices of well-done brisket. The noodles were a bit clumpy but pleasantly chewy. The broth was a touch murky, but generally good, as flavors of anise and cilantro rounded out the substantial beef base. Fresh slices of onion supplied a welcome touch of crispness.

If we had to go one way or the other, we personally prefer the clean purity of the Northern Vietnamese broths (such as those found at Turtle Tower) to the more dressed-up Southern-style broths, and we are partial to Turtle Tower’s fresh wide noodles. However, Southern-style pho is also very nice, and Pho Tan Hoa serves up a quality version.

RATING:

COST:

431 Jones Street (between O’Farrell St. and Ellis St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.673.3163
Hours: Daily, 8:00 am – 7:00 pm.

Cash only. Takeout available.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Tenderloin

How to get there: Muni lines 2, 3, 4, 19, 27, 31, 38, and 76. Pho Tan Hoa is 4-5 blocks from both Powell and Civic Center BART/Muni stations (lines F, J, K, L, M, N, T).

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Le Cheval: Quit Horsing Around

April 20, 2007

Le Cheval is a Vietnamese restaurant located at 10th and Clay in downtown Oakland, a few blocks from Chinatown and the City Center. Really, though, it’s not just a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Oakland. It’s the Vietnamese restaurant — certainly not because it’s the best Vietnamese in the immediate vicinity, but just because of its reputation and history. The restaurant has been around since 1985, and in downtown Oakland — an area that is currently in the midst of a revitalization (or gentrification, if you prefer), but for many people, is still synonymous with crime, empty streets, and urban blight — that is indeed saying something. In the 1980’s, many people fled the city in response to its high crime rate, and the buildings downtown emptied out. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 essentially sealed the deal, because once the buildings became uninhabitable and physically unsafe after the earthquake, there really was little reason for people to stay. Downtown Oakland, once a bustling boomtown and the cultural heart of the East Bay, became a neglected ghost town. Of course, there were workers in the area during the week from 9-5, but come nights and weekends, the area pretty much evacuated — a hollow skeleton lacking flesh and blood to give it life. In the past few years, renewed interest in the area has brought about an influx of new apartments, bars, clubs, and restaurants. It is a work in progress, though, and even now, almost 20 years after the earthquake, downtown feels quieter and more subdued than it should.

What does any of this have to do with Le Cheval? Well, Le Cheval stuck around, through thick and thin, when very few others did, and for that, Short Exact would like to give them a gracious nod and word of thanks. Combined with Chinatown (the only part of downtown Oakland which has remained thoroughly and consistently bustling throughout this whole period), Le Cheval became one of the beacons of light that city politicians could rally around and point to, as evidence that the downtown area would one day soon come into its own again and regain its rightful place as the pulsing urban heart of the East Bay. Former mayor Jerry Brown was particularly fond of this restaurant, and he often mentioned it in connection with his own extensive (one might almost say obsessive) effort at breathing new life into the downtown core.

It isn’t hard to see why he has a fondness for this place, beyond just the fact that they stuck around when most others left. The decor of the large restaurant floor, unsurprisingly, features lots of horses (for any Francophobes reading, “cheval” is the French word for “horse”), and provides an atmosphere that, while on the noisy side, is a cut or two above what you would find at a hole-in-the-wall. There is also a feeling about Le Cheval that is distinctly Oakland, one which you won’t necessarily find that often, even at other establishments in Oakland, and it is a noticeable contrast to the hyped “see and be seen” mentality that characterizes many restaurants in San Francisco. Oakland may be somewhat grittier, rougher around the edges, and less fashionable than its elegant, foggy cousin across the Bay, but it has a refreshingly casual, down-to-earth attitude that is in evidence at tables all over the large, spacious floor of Le Cheval. It is a cliche (but nonetheless, a true cliche) that one of Oakland’s greatest strengths is its diversity, and there is a comfortable, organic, and completely unforced sort of diversity that we’ve consistently observed in the people eating at Le Cheval — and it is not as common as you’d think it would be, even here in the Bay Area, a region fond of touting itself as a bastion of diversity.

We don’t usually give this sort of historical/sociological introduction to restaurants, but it seemed to be an appropriate thing to do for Le Cheval, because while our last visit demonstrated a noticeable decline in terms of both food and service, we still wanted to convey the affection we have for this restaurant, in spite of any possible decline.

Anyway, after all that text, you probably want some pictures to rest your eyes a bit, so without further ado, let’s move onto the food:

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This was the goi sua sen, a salad full of steamed shrimp, cabbage, thin strips of jellyfish, lotus roots, and cilantro and mint leaves, all topped with a garnish of chopped peanuts. This was a light, refreshing dish with fresh ingredients, but as often seems to be the case at more Americanized Vietnamese restaurants, the dressing, based on fish sauce and vinegar, was too light (read: bland) . The salad would have benefited from a dressing with more body. We also started with an order of (what else) but the goi cuon shrimp rolls, with vermicelli, mint, and lettuce wrapped in rice paper. The rolls were not exemplary, as some of the greens were not at maximum freshness (old and wilted), and there were random holes and sloppy sections in the wrapping.

Our entree was the lemon grass calimari (muc xao xa ot), served with white rice,

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and unfortunately, this was also sort of a disappointment. Despite being labeled “spicy”, the dish was not the least bit so. Hints of a flat, one-dimensional curry and lemon grass emerged, but even though this sauce drowned and completely overpowered the calimari, it was not nearly as flavorful and aromatic as it could have been. Meanwhile, a lot of the character, bounce, and crisp texture had been cooked out of the onions and the calimari, giving many pieces a rubbery profile. The dish did not taste reheated at all, and it wasn’t terrible, but it was mediocre and unnuanced. We would mostly likely not order this dish again, especially with so many other choices on the menu.

In the past, the service at Le Cheval was always closer to brisk and efficient than courteous, but on our most recent visit, the service was inexperienced and indifferent, at best. An awkward delay passed between the time we placed the order and received the appetizers, but then the entree arrived just seconds later, right on the heel of the starters. The servers insisted on crowding all dishes into one corner of the table rather than spreading them out in a more useful way, and so we were forced to rearrange the whole table ourselves into a suitable format before eating. There weren’t any mistakes made in the order, so the service wasn’t horrible, but the prices, while reasonable, are not exactly cheap (most entrees pass above the $10 mark), and we don’t think it’s unfair to expect at least somewhat better service at this price point.

Generally, we were pretty disappointed in Le Cheval after this visit. Le Cheval was never great Vietnamese food, nor was it ever the best in downtown Oakland, since this area (including Chinatown) has a fairly dense cluster of Vietnamese restaurants. It is, however, an Oakland institution, and even if their cuisine was never the best, it was usually at least decent, and oftentimes quite good — good enough to warrant return visits. It has been some years since we were last here, and it is sad for us to see a restaurant with this much history decline. Business still seems to be good, thanks to its reputation, but reputation can only carry you so far, if there is a lack of substance to back it up.

Anyway, we sincerely hope that Le Cheval quits horsing around. This restaurant, with over two decades of history, has long been an anchor in a once flailing downtown area, and now that downtown is finally starting to blossom and be recognized in the way that it deserves to be, Le Cheval needs to get its act together so that it can continue to keep its place as a loved institution for many years to come.

RATING:

COST:

1007 Clay Street (at 10th St.)
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone: 510.763.8495
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11:00 am – 9:30 pm; Sun, 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Downtown Oakland

How to get there: The restaurant is only a few blocks from the Oakland City Center/12 St BART station. AC Transit lines: 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 40, 43, 51, 63, 72, 82 and 88.

Note: There is another branch of this restaurant, “Le Petit Cheval” in Berkeley, but this review only covers the main Oakland restaurant.

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The Slanted Door: Photo Edition

March 27, 2007

You might recall that awhile back we wrote up a little report on The Slanted Door. As it turns out, The Slanted Door is actually remarkably consistent in terms of both preparation and service, so our opinion has not really changed much since that last post. However, Short Exact had the chance to visit again a couple of weeks ago, and we happened to have our camera with us! So with this post, we aren’t really reporting any uphill or downhill progress. To be honest, this post is really all about the food porn. (Good stuff, right? Yes?)

We started with the chicken salad,

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served with vermicelli noodle and cabbage. It was a light and refreshing start to the lunch. You know, for what it is, this salad was fine, though it could have used stronger flavors (which is a nice way of saying we really wish it actually tasted like something). We’re being a bit flippant, but a more pronounced fish sauce and herbal flavor would have really enlivened this dish. The preparation here is loosely Vietnamese, but left some to be desired.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably noticed that when it comes to food photography, we’re usually pretty consistent and straightforward (read: slightly boring) about it– we pretty much always just take aerial shots. For some reason though, we thought we’d try something a little more artsy for this next shot. Anyway, we think it turned out pretty well, and maybe you will even agree. There’s a fuzzy background compared to the sharper focus of the plate in the foreground, along with the rice bowl and water glass:

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Oh, right: the food. This is a food blog, not a photography blog. These were the caramelized tiger prawns, featuring a somewhat rich chili sauce, with organic onions providing both soft crunch and a delicate sweetness. The prawns, hearty and with a slightly toothsome texture, were perfectly cooked. This was definitely good, but no stunning culinary achievement here; when it comes down to it, this dish was just a good way to enjoy some very nice prawns.

The cha gio (imperial rolls) were up next,

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featuring a mixture of pork, shrimp, peanuts, and glass noodles, of course served with the expected greens in which to wrap the rolls. These were delicious, and surprisingly authentic, as well. The nuoc cham dipping sauce that was provided was on the sweet side and not especially nuanced, but it definitely was not bad either. Meanwhile, the rolls themselves were light, clean, and very fresh. Nice work here.

The cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab meat

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is the signature dish at the Slanted Door, and with good reason we believe. This dish is all about demonstrating how subtle tastes and textures can be just as enchanting as bold ones. Crab does not have an especially strong flavor, and in general, it is too often the case that whenever crab is used in a dish, the flavor is overwhelmed, and the only part of the crab we can really enjoy is the texture. Not so here. The flavor of the cellophane noodles is even more delicate than that of the crab, and yet the noodles do a great job of simultaneously supporting and enhancing the crab, which rises to take the center stage in this dish.

The last entree was the shaking beef,

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featuring delicious and mighty tender chunks of Meyer Ranch filet mignon, accompanied by watercress, garlic, and organic onions. The dipping sauce was a bright and well-balanced combination of salt, lime juice, and freshly ground black pepper. For restaurants that offer it, the shaking beef usually turns out to be one of the most expensive items on the menu, and the Slanted Door is no exception. There is no doubt that the shaking beef was well-executed (and we would be lying if we said we did not enjoy it), but at $24 (at lunchtime, probably slightly more expensive at dinner), you’re definitely paying for it. We still aren’t convinced that this rendition so outstripped its competitors (at other restaurants) as to be worth the premium.

As it turns out, discussions about The Slanted Door are some of the most contentious you’ll probably find in the San Francisco food scene; actually, they are very reminiscent of the discussions that take place over whether or not the landmark Zuni Cafe is overrated. On the one hand, this restaurant provides a quintessential San Francisco experience. San Franciscans are suckers for great views (probably because of all the hills and scenic vista points), and the prime Ferry Building location makes The Slanted Door the exception to the rule that good food and good views are mutually exclusive. San Francisco is also famously an aquatic peninsular city, being surrounded on 3 out of 4 sides by water. So yes, there is something quintessentially San Francisco about eating Asian food in bright surroundings, looking out at great water views.

On the other hand, this diverse city is full of so many different cuisines that many foodies here are hell-bent on finding authentic, treasured gems (and if you’re a regular reader, you know that Short Exact definitely falls into this category). In that sense, the Slanted Door, with its posh surroundings and collection of dishes which are really only “Vietnamese inspired” (and have been altered to suit American tastes), runs directly counter to this urge to constantly search out the authentic spots, no matter how dirty or run-down they might be. The fact that the Slanted Door often charges quite expensive prices (for dishes that you could find for much lower prices at other restaurants) only adds to the insult, and for many naysayers, this is the last straw. We imagine that this would be especially frustrating for those of Vietnamese descent, who might resent the fact that their favorite home-cooked dishes are being touted as stylish and gourmet, and with prices to match. There are also many people who are familiar with this restaurant from its original days on Valencia Street, no doubt still mourning the loss of their treasured neighborhood spot that has since morphed into a regional destination. Lastly, throw in the fact that the place is always packed and never seems to have any available bookings, and it’s suddenly not so difficult to see why the Slanted Door is such a controversial restaurant.

At first, we were always a little torn about the Slanted Door, for exactly these reasons. Since then, we’ve learned to chill a bit — it’s just food after all, right? We would never say that The Slanted Door is our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, but to call it “bad” would be very unfair. The food here ranges anywhere from pretty good to great, the surroundings are very nice (although noisy and a bit hectic), and we’ve always had helpful and kind service. Some of the prices are definitely out of line, but you have to remember that you are paying for more than just food here. You will be served some high quality ingredients, yes, but you are also paying for the location, the environment, and the general dining experience. Obviously, this restaurant does not provide the best value, so if you visit here looking for value, you’re really just setting yourself up to hate it. From solely the food perspective, which is where we tend to place most of the emphasis, the Slanted Door could never be our favorite Vietnamese in town — certainly not a place to visit regularly. Every once in awhile, though, a more upscale place is required, perhaps to celebrate a special occasion, and for those cases, The Slanted Door fits the bill. Despite the controversy, The Slanted Door still offers good (or better) food and a nice dining experience.

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll down to the bottom of our original review for restaurant hours and contact information.

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Turtle Tower Restaurant

March 18, 2007

Just a couple blocks north of San Francisco’s Civic Center area lies a strip of Vietnamese storefronts on Larkin Street. Though the neighborhood is not huge, the concentration of restaurants serving pho and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) is large enough that the City decided that this area needed an official name to put it on the map. Sure enough, this sub-district of the Tenderloin has since come to be known as “Little Saigon”, although this term is not exactly universally recognized or used. The Little Saigon district contains a number of good restaurants that we’ll highlight periodically here on the Short Exact Guide. One of our favorite little gems in this area is the Turtle Tower Restaurant. (One note: Turtle Tower also has a branch in the Outer Richmond. We will definitely report on this branch in the future, but this review is only for the Tenderloin location.)

Contrary to what many Americans seem to think, Vietnamese cuisine actually consists of a great deal more than just pho noodle soups, and some restaurants that excel in their preparation of certain dishes may have rather average pho. Still, noodle soups are a prominent part of the cuisine, and when we have a hankering for pho (which, if you’re a regular reader, you can probably guess happens quite frequently), we often entrust Turtle Tower with the task of satisfying our craving. So far, they haven’t failed us once.

Turtle Tower’s menu is not especially deep, but it contains a variety of well-loved Vietnamese dishes, including pho, bun (vermicelli noodle salads), and rice plates. The restaurant also serves chao ga (chicken porridge), and a few sticky rice dishes. Filtered coffee and a variety of teas and juices round out the menu. Vegetarians beware, though; as is often the case at authentic Vietnamese restaurants, almost everything on the menu involves beef, chicken, or pork. The exception to this would be the grilled fillet of catfish served atop vermicelli noodle, but even this dish would not be of interest to strict vegetarians. The service here is courteous and friendly, but as you might expect, it is characterized by that brisk sort of efficiency that typifies crowded noodle houses. The only noteworthy point here is that if you are dining solo, you might be asked to share a table with another solo diner. Short Exact personally does not mind doing this, but if you prefer to not sit with strangers, we recommend that you dine at an off-hour or go in a group.

If you order the pho at Turtle Tower, you will notice a couple of key differences which set it apart from the majority of pho joints in the Bay Area. Most restaurants will give you a variety of sauces (including sriracha, soy, and hoisin), basil, bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno, and assorted sides — all of which are useful in giving some life to what sometimes turn out to be pretty tepid broths. Turtle Tower, however, only supplies lime, jalapeno and sriracha. These are useful in adding a bit of kick to the broth or lightly brightening the flavor, but very often, we just leave the soup as it is given to us. This may seem minimalist, but the broth here is really good, based as it is on a solid stock lovingly cultivated from the bones. Turtle Tower serves Northern-style pho, which tends to emphasize the cleaner, more natural stock flavors, while Southern-style pho tends to use more star anise and other spices and herbs to make up the difference. These two styles yield considerably different flavor profiles. Short Exact’s taste tends to align more with Northern broths rather than the Southern ones, but the style you prefer is really just a matter of taste.

On our most recent visit to Turtle Tower, we ordered the pho ga long,

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the noodle soup with chicken meat and intestines. If you aren’t a fan of eating “innards”, you needn’t worry, because you can instead order the regular pho ga, which will only use chicken meat; the pho ga long, however, provides a greater diversity of flavors and textures. As you can see in the picture, a wider rice noodle is used, instead of the ubiquitous vermicelli noodle, and these fresh noodles had a nice softness that helped them soak up the flavors in which they were steeped. The soup was packed to the gills with generous chunks of fresh, clean-tasting white chicken meat and also with the promised innards — including some delightful chicken livers that were almost creamy. Another great touch is the addition of the baby yolk of an unborn chicken egg (sometimes also called “unhatched egg” or “young egg”). It is a rather traditional item to stick in these chicken soups, but we’ve only managed to find a few places that do it, and Turtle Tower itself doesn’t even do so consistently.

As usual, Turtle Tower did not disappoint us, and the broth was the star of the show. As we mentioned earlier, so many restaurants will compensate for a true lack of true chicken or beef flavor by increasing the use of oil and herbs, but Turtle Tower’s broth is always a delight. The broth in the pho ga long was light, balanced, and clean; yet, it featured a deep chicken flavor that sang clearly on our every sip or slurp. The cilantro and scallions provided a contrasting texture, flavor, and color that only further clarified the flavor of the broth. Best of all, the broth had permeated to each and every piece of meat in the soup. The flavor of the meat and the flavor of the broth were a perfect complement to each other. There was a resonance between the liquid and solid portions of this soup, each enhancing and amplifying the other, so that the combined flavor was somehow more than just the sum of its parts. This is simple comfort food at its best: well-executed, with no corners cut.

What more can we say? Whether you’re in the market for some un-pho-gettable pho (sorry, we couldn’t resist!), or you are simply looking for some of the best chicken soup in town, run, don’t walk, to the Turtle Tower Restaurant.

RATING:

COST:

631 Larkin Street (at Willow St., between Ellis St. and Eddy St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.409.3333
Hours: Mon, Wed-Sun: 8:30 am – 7:30 pm. Closed Tuesdays.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Tenderloin

How to get there: Muni bus lines 2, 3, 4, 5, 19, 27, 38, 47, and 49. The restaurant is about 6 blocks from both Powell and Civic Center stations (BART, Muni lines F, J, K, L, M, N, and T).

NOTE: This review only applies to the Tenderloin location of Turtle Tower. One day, though, we will get around to reporting on the branch in the Outer Richmond.

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Tao Cafe

February 8, 2007

Tao Cafe is a charming Vietnamese restaurant at the corner of 22nd and Guerrero, in a part of the Mission District that begins to take on a Noe Valley feel. The cuisine here is really French-Vietnamese, in that the offerings are Vietnamese dishes that are sometimes executed with French techniques and sensibilities. For example, Tao Cafe offers a duck confit (more on this later), as well as a Vietnamese version of the ratatouille, a Provencal stew of vegetables. Yes, one pho soup is offered, the pho bo (beef noodle soup) — at the whopping price of $8.50! — but other options are much more enticing. The menu is divided into several sections; in addition to smaller plates and appetizers, there are “large plates” (involving a meat or seafood), several vegetarian clay pots (which were quite well done when we ordered one on a past visit), and the “oodles of noodles” section, which has all the noodle dishes. Another great offer is the 3-course prix fixe (offered every day except Friday and Saturday), in which you can order an appetizer, an “oodles of noodles” dish, and a dessert, for less than $18 (the exact price depends on your choices). Every table is given a complimentary assortment of munchables to begin (which we did not take a picture of). These may or may not change, but on our visit, we were given two types of chips (shrimp and mung bean), and two types of pickled vegetables (carrot and daikon). A nice, light assortment to begin the meal. For an appetizer, we had the fresh spring roll of grilled salmon,

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which was served with a ginger and tamarind sauce. The salmon with ginger and tamarind actually turned out to be a fairly nice combination, but the peak of the flavor came quickly and was short-lived. After that point in time, the flavor fell flat, rather than continuing to evolve as we chewed. The wrapping of the roll was done fairly well, though. This was an interesting dish to order, but we would still consider it to be inferior to an excellently executed, but more traditional, goi cuon (Vietnamese spring roll).

Our entree was the mi vit,

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the aforementioned Vietnamese confit of duck legs, served with egg noodles. The duck in this dish was actually excellent; the meat was tender, falling right off the bone, and it was very flavorful. An entire duck leg is included, although the entree is around $12, so you are paying for it. Very tasty indeed. However, the egg noodles were a bit too clumpy and mushy from sitting in the soup; they very quickly lost that sort of light, bouncy chewiness exhibited by superior egg noodles. The broth itself was oversalted, and while some salt is certainly necessary to offset the duck, this broth had a bit too much, and the noodles, in turn, absorbed more and more of that salt as they sat longer stewing in the broth; this, of course, only increased the saltiness of the dish. Because of this, we would probably not order this dish again as a soup (it can be ordered with broth or without), since it seemed to be exactly the “soupy” aspects of it (the broth, and the noodle/broth interaction) that were not as well executed. However, since the duck confit itself was so nice, we not hesitate to order this again as a standard noodle plate.

All told, Tao Cafe is an enjoyable restaurant. The French colonial decor gives Tao Cafe the look of a tropical hotel lobby, and the setting is much nicer than what you’d find at a hole-in-the-wall (although, as you know if you’re a regular reader, Short Exact loves those dearly). The service was OK; it was generally prompt and nice, but it seemed slightly unfocused and disinterested at the same time. The food, while not perfect, is generally good and has its shining moments. Although not a destination restaurant, Tao Cafe is a perfectly nice choice in the neighborhood.

RATING:

COST:

1000 Guerrero Street (at 22nd St.)
San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone: 415.641.9955
Hours: Daily, 5:30 pm – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Mission

How to get there: Muni lines 14, 26, 33, 48, 49, 67, and J. 24 Street Mission BART station is four long blocks away.

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Ngoc Mai

January 5, 2007

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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”,

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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,

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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:

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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.

RATING:

COST:

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.

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Pho 84

February 4, 2006

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Pho 84 happens to be one of Short Exact’s very favorite Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area, and so when we happened to be in Oakland one night, we jumped at a chance to finally write an entry for it. Tucked away on a cozy tree-lined stretch of 17th Street in Downtown Oakland’s emerging Uptown District, Pho 84 has for years now consistently served delicious, well-prepared dishes that make the tongue swoon and the taste buds soar. Lines reliably develop outside the restaurant on any given meal of the week, but it’s worth the wait: your patience will be rewarded. On many different occasions, Short Exact has had all sorts of dishes at Pho 84: curries, noodle bowls, rice plates – and not one dish has been anything less than wholly satisfying. The ingredients are fresh, and the composition of each dish is well-planned. Preparations are subtle, peanut sauces are deep and rich, and curries are full of just the right flavors. On our last visit, Short Exact ordered a classic item, the bahn hoi tom nuong,

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marinated grilled prawns over a bed of fine vermicelli. Too often this dish is served with bland, uninspired nuoc cham, but Pho 84 prepares the dish with an intriguing nuoc cham that delicately balances sweet and sour flavors in a way that perfectly complements the taste of the prawns. The whole dish, which is simplistic in concept, immensely benefits from this of sort of subtlety.

Ironically, the pho here is actually one of the weaker points. It’s definitely decent, but we can’t recommend Pho 84’s pho as wholeheartedly we could the pho at other establishments who essentially serve only pho. Pho 84 has a broad menu, though, and it does a great job with almost all of it.

Although mayor Jerry Brown seems to have developed quite a fixation on Le Cheval as the epitome of Vietnamese cuisine downtown, Pho 84 is truly the superior of these two eateries – though Le Cheval is quite good, and will hopefully one day have its own Short Exact entry. Pho 84 is a special place, though. It’s exactly the sort of Vietnamese joint you wish was in your neighborhood, and Uptown is lucky to have it. So go on: close this browser window, hop on BART, and enjoy the diverse, delicious flavors that Pho 84 has to offer.

RATING:

COST:

354 17th Street (near Webster St.)
Oakland, CA 94612
Phone: 510.832.1338
Hours: Monday-Friday 11:00 am-3:00 pm; Saturday 12:00 pm-9:00 pm; Sunday 5:00 pm-9:00 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Downtown Oakland

How to get there: Pho 84 is easily accessible via AC Transit lines 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 40, 43, 51, 59, 72, N, and NL. For BART riders, the 19 Street Broadway station is just a couple blocks away.