Archive for the ‘SF: Tenderloin’ 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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Larkin Express Deli

May 31, 2007

Short Exact has been terribly busy lately (which explains the lack of posts recently), but Larkin Express Deli — a restaurant located (funnily enough) on Larkin Street, in the shadow of the old Federal Building on the Tenderloin/Civic Center border — is a restaurant we’ve been meaning to write about for several weeks now, and we didn’t want to wait on this any longer, since it’s a special sort of spot. On the surface, it looks unremarkable, like any standard deli,

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and the generic name “Larkin Express Deli” does nothing to discourage that notion. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Larkin Express Deli has a bit of a split personality. If you click on the above image and enlarge it in Flickr, the menu written on the chalkboard looks like a fairly standard American deli menu, including a variety of burgers, meat plates, and sandwiches (such as turkey, chicken, meatball, roast beef, pastrami, reuben, and others). However, lurking beneath the surface of this seemingly commonplace deli is a second menu, consisting of several authentic Burmese specialties — including such favorite, classic dishes as the catfish chowder moh hinga, the tea leaf and ginger salads, and the chicken coconut soup ong noh kau swer. Note: we have not ordered any of the American deli fare, only the Burmese dishes, so this review is based exclusively on the Burmese food, and this post has only been filed away in the Burmese cuisine category.

On a recent visit, we ordered the chicken coconut soup,

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and it was a delight. The noodles were perhaps a touch softer than we would have liked, but they were still pleasantly chewy (not the least bit mushy), and they thoroughly absorbed the flavors of the soup. The soup base was a deliciously layered and well balanced mix of curry and coconut milk, with a deep underlying chicken flavor from the stock. Chunks of tender, moist, flavorful dark meat chicken were scattered throughout the soup, and the fried peas added crunch and an additional flavor dimension. Considering the very reasonable price ($5.50, at the time of this post) for this generous portion of soup, the garnish of fried peas and fresh cilantro was unexpected, but very much appreciated.

We also ordered one of our favorite Burmese standards, the tea leaf salad (la pat dok), to go. We sort of mumbled in passing that we would probably end up trying a bit of the salad in the restaurant, just as a sample, and we expected to simply take a bite or two out of a to-go container. Imagine our surprise when a small portion was served on a plate,

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a plate that was even green to match the hue of the green tea leaves that are the centerpiece of this dish. This was a simple gesture, but it helps to demonstrate the genuine and thorough service here, which was all the more unexpected because the words “express” and “deli” in the restaurant name do not immediately suggest that there should be good service, or even any service at all.

Of course, the portion of salad in the above picture is just a small fraction of the much larger full portion. This dish was a touch oily, but it contained a delicious mixture of textures and flavors, with numerous ingredients, including garlic, peanuts, split peas, sesame seeds, wedges of tomato, and the namesake tea leaves. The centerpiece of this dish is, of course, the tea leaves, which feature a wonderfully strong, pungent flavor that is complemented well by the other milder ingredients. No corners were cut, as these tea leaves were imported straight from Myanmar. Notably, the la pat dok does not include any Western salad greens (which less traditional versions of this dish will sometimes use, perhaps to make it appear more salad-like to Americans), and the fact that the tea leaves are the only greens present helps to emphasize their role in the salad. When all is said and done, the la pat dok is a lovely, flavorful mixture.

Visiting this restaurant was a great experience. We dropped by later in the afternoon, when we were one of few customers, and this gave us the chance to chat with Dennis, the owner, for quite awhile. (Dennis also runs the Tennessee Grill restaurant, out on Taraval, which we have not visited. Unfortunately, there is no Burmese food to be found there!) Our chat not only revealed what a genuinely friendly person Dennis is, but also the care and effort which has gone into crafting the Burmese side of the menu. While the American half of the menu is a legacy of the previous owners (and, we imagine, the sandwiches and burgers are probably popular at lunchtime for office workers in the area), the Burmese half of the menu is a labor of love, in which Dennis showcases the cuisine of his native country, and the time and care that is put into these authentic home-cooked Burmese dishes shine through clearly. Combined with the kind and caring service, this restaurant has all the homey comfort that one might experience eating in a friend’s kitchen.

For Burmese east of Divisadero Street, look no further than Larkin Express Deli.

RATING:

COST:

452 Larkin Street (between Golden Gate Ave. and Turk St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.474.5569
Hours: Mon-Fri, 10:00 am – 7:00 pm.

Cuisine: Burmese
Neighborhood: Tenderloin, Hayes Valley/Civic Center

How to get there: Muni lines 5, 19, 21, 31, 38, 47 and 49. The restaurant is 4-5 blocks from lines 6, 7, 9, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N, and T (Civic Center BART/Muni station).

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Another Glance at Little Delhi

March 29, 2007

Several months back, we wrote about a favorite Indian place of ours, Little Delhi. Little Delhi started off as a rough-and-tumble joint near Geary and Jones, in the thick of the “Tandoorloin” corridor. Never mind the surroundings though — it’s all part of the charm, right? The food was delicious, beating much more popular joints like Naan ‘n Curry clear out of the water. There was a period in which the restaurant was closed, but happily it reopened, with expanded premises literally on top of Powell BART/Muni subway station. (Seriously: in the bathroom, you can hear Muni’s slightly clunky light rail trains rumbling through the tunnel directly underneath you.) The expanded restaurant, which features very bright red booths, was a nice change, but the important part was that with Kamar Barbhuyan at the helm, you were guaranteed a great ride with some pretty magical curries.

Then, last October, Tablehopper Marcia reported that a business disagreement had forced Kamar to leave Little Delhi, in the hopes of opening a new restaurant of his own. We were sad to hear that he left Little Delhi, but we are also excited to try out his new venture. So far, we haven’t heard about his new joint yet, but you can be sure we will visit just as soon as he opens it. Last October, though, we promised a new look at Little Delhi; so, several months later (sorry about the delay!), we are finally following through on that promise.

One thing to keep in mind here is that we’ve only been back to Little Delhi once since Kamar left. We do plan on visiting again to keep our reporting accurate. Still, we feel that we visited the original Little Delhi enough to recognize the fact that on our most recent visit, there has indeed been some change, and so we will continue to follow any other possible changes in the future.

Anyway, onto the food. A meal at Little Delhi begins with complimentary pappadams (the thin, crisp, spicy wafers) and chutneys. This complimentary starter has not been yanked away (presumably because the ownership has not changed), but we did notice a sort of uneven quality to both the texture and the flavor of the chutneys, almost as though they had not quite been finished yet; it was a noticeable change from the chutneys that we had here several months ago. Of course, we ordered the obligatory naan to accompany our meal:

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Little Delhi’s naan was never really our favorite to begin with, but it seems to now lack what we view to be a pretty crucial element of superior naan, namely a balance between softer, chewier, denser sections and the lighter crunchy, blistered sections. The naan we had at this last meal had a slightly crunchy texture uniform throughout all of each piece, almost as if we were eating a piece of toast. The textural contrasts were almost completely absent. It did the job, but it was not great.

For an entree, we ordered the lamb korma:

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This was definitely a good dish. Thankfully, the hallmark slivers of almond, which added a touch of sweetness and a soft crunch, were not removed. Several chunks of tender lamb were scattered throughout the dish, well-flavored by the curry. The curry here was also solid, but we would be lying if we said it was as good as before. The curries here were once deliciously complex, with layers of flavor that transformed and evolved as the spices were kept in contact with your taste buds and as they tumbled down your esophagus — it was magic on a plate. Our lamb korma this time, though, was not up to that standard. Flavorful, to be sure, but it did not pack as multi-dimensional or as long-lasting a punch.

Little Delhi is still a solid Indian restaurant, and it still beats many places in town. The restaurant somehow seems slightly more subdued than before, but the service is still prompt and at least reservedly friendly, and the menu is the same. Most importantly, the food is still good, and its ridiculously convenient location on top of Powell Station pretty much guarantees that we will return at least every once in awhile — and, as we said, we will continue to provide updates as necessary. However, Little Delhi’s curries did not sing to us quite as enthusiastically as they once did, and so we will sing the praises of Little Delhi a little less enthusiastically, as well.

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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Update on Dim Sum Bar

March 4, 2007

A few weeks ago, we reported about our experience at Dim Sum Bar, a brand new joint in the Tenderloin offering a small collection of dim sum items, as well as some standard Chinese entree plates. Yesterday, we dropped by again to see if any developments emerged, hoping that perhaps there would be improvement as the staff here settled into their new restaurant.

On our first visit, only two types of dumplings were available: a “soupy pork” dumpling (which was supposedly xiao long bao) and the siu mai pork dumpling. The very standard shrimp dumpling har gao was not available on our first visit a few weeks ago. However, on our visit yesterday, we were delighted to see that not only were har gao available, but also a vegetarian dumpling, bringing the total number of dumplings to 4, instead of 2. Still not great, but we’ll take it.

We ordered the har gao and the “xiao long bao.” The har gao were just okay; the wrapper was uneven, messy, and sometimes too thick. Also, the shrimp were somewhat overcooked. We’ve had worse har gao before, but even so, Dim Sum Bar’s rendition is not a shining example. However, we are pleased to report an improvement in the xiao long bao! Last time, our “soupy pork” dumplings had no soup in them, and the resulting dumplings were reminiscent of siu mai. On our latest visit, though, there was certainly soup. Not a particularly complex broth, but soup nonetheless. In addition, the pork this time was considerably more flavorful, while the first time we ordered this dish, the dumplings bordered on bland. By no means are these world-class xiao long bao, but we definitely appreciate the improvement, and we hope that this restaurant continues to improve and expand its offerings.

However, the changes have not been so monumental that we feel the need to re-rate Dim Sum Bar. So, Short Exact is still sticking with our first rating:

RATING:

COST:

Please click here to read our original review of Dim Sum Bar, and for the restaurant hours, location, and phone number.

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Dim Sum Bar

February 12, 2007

UPDATE (March 4, 2007): A few weeks after writing this review, Short Exact revisited Dim Sum Bar to see how the restaurant makes progress in these crucial first few months in operation. To read about our second experience at Dim Sum Bar, please click here. Our original review follows below.

The Tenderloin, for all its dirt and grime, drug-dealing, and crazy people yelling and moaning on the street, remains one of our favorite neighborhoods in the city. As one of a fast-decreasing number of as yet ungentrified enclaves, the Tenderloin is filled with hidden treasures, and from Short Exact’s perspective, there are few hidden treasures as good as some delicious, cheap eats. This area has no shortage of Indian/Pakistani, Thai, and Vietnamese joints, but there is a very striking lack of decent Chinese food. In particular, while some parts of the Richmond district seem to have dim sum in every other storefront, nary a one could be found in the Tenderloin. So imagine our surprise when we realized that not one but two brand new dim sum joints were opening in the Tenderloin, within a very short span of time.One of these two new joints, the Emperor’s Kitchen, is located on Larkin, right on the border with Civic Center. The other joint, Dim Sum Bar, is more properly located in the heart of the Tenderloin, on O’Farrell. It is the latter of these two restaurants that Short Exact visited on this last very rainy Saturday.

Interestingly, Dim Sum Bar offers xiao long bao, the Shanghai soup dumpling, which ranks as one of Short Exact’s very favorite dishes of all time. One quirk of Dim Sum Bar is that the menu, rather than using traditional names, opts instead for odd English names, so here at this restaurant, xiao long bao is called “soupy pork.” “Soupy crab and pork” is also sometimes offered, along with other “soupy” dumplings involving chicken and veggies, but not when we were there. The menu consists of a pretty basic list of dim sum items, including a short list of dumplings, and a list of baos (buns). When we visited, there were only 3 types of dumplings listed on the menu, of which only the two involving pork were available. It was quite surprising, because we don’t think we’ve ever been to a dim sum place unable to supply your basic har gao shrimp dumpling, but we suppose there’s a first for everything. Dim Sum Bar also offers a few vegetarian dim sum items, and it repackages its dumplings and buns into combos; for example, one could order an all vegetarian combo, or a lunch combo for $3.96, which inclues a bun, a few dumplings, a beverage, and a side salad or soup. Despite these combos, though, the menu is pretty limited. Very good dim sum restaurants will have dozens upon dozens of offerings, but Dim Sum Bar carries less than a dozen such items — a fact we hope will change as the restaurant gets more settled into its operations. In addition, the menu actually includes more than just dim sum. There is also a list of “Chef’s Specials”, which include very familiar, standard items like mongolian beef. These dishes can be found at so many lackluster restaurants, so we did not try any of them. Instead, we were much more eager to investigate the dim sum, given the previous lack of dim sum in this neighborhood.

An individual bao runs $0.92, while an order of three dumplings costs $2.07. These are definitely not the cheapest prices in the city, so we were hoping that perhaps the slightly higher price would translate into better quality. This turned out not to be the case, and since better dim sum can be had for less money, this restaurant does not provide the best value. But the prices are still reasonable, especially for a quick lunch on-the-go. For $4.25, Short Exact ordered a char siu bao (the barbeque pork bun), a sweet lotus bao, and an order of three xiao long bao “soupy pork” dumplings (along with a small bottle of mineral water, not pictured below):

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The food was entirely average. The xiao long bao, despite being called “soupy”, really did not contain any soup; this was just another version of the siu mai pork dumpling. The wheat wrapper was decent, if not particularly refined or delicate, but we would have preferred it to be slightly thinner. In addition, the flavors were pretty muted and uninteresting. An excellent xiao long bao is a delight, both in terms of a complex broth and the texture and sensation of the wrapper and the soup, but these dumplings did not live up to this ideal. It was a very similar situation with the baos. The bun itself was reasonably light and fluffy, but the contents were fairly bland, lacking a convincing texture or flavor. By no means were these the worst examples that we’ve seen of these dishes, but they were not excellent either: merely run-of-the-mill.

Clearly, then, Dim Sum Bar is not a destination. Chinese food in the Tenderloin area is unimpressive, and Dim Sum Bar only barely improves the situation by providing a bit more variety. However, if you happen to be in this dim sum-challenged part of town, the Dim Sum Bar will come through in a pinch. This restaurant has very all-encompassing hours, so if you’re having a dumpling craving at breakfast, lunch or dinner, any day of the week, Dim Sum Bar is on it — just as long as your craving does not require anything particularly authentic or “exotic.” As a plus, the dining area is pleasant enough, and the restroom is probably one of the cleanest you’ll find in any dim sum restaurant, excluding Yank Sing. Despite the average quality, the Dim Sum Bar does provide quick and convenient dim sum in a location formerly devoid of the same, so in that sense, it’s certainly not a bad addition to the neighborhood.

RATING:

COST:

620 O’Farrell Street (between Leavenworth St. and Hyde St.)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415.839.7366
Hours: Daily, 7:00 am – 10:00 pm.

Cuisine: Chinese/Dim Sum
Neighborhood: Tenderloin

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

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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.