At the heart of the Slanted Door Restaurant San Francisco is Vietnamese cuisine. Chef Charles Phan starts there and recreates traditional Vietnamese fare with touches of other Asian and Western flavors. Some call this fusion but it's not the trite fusion-confusion one encounters at many Asian-Californian-Continental eateries that stuff an eggroll with mac 'n cheese and try to convince patrons they've reached culinary nirvana. No, the fusion comes more from the stylish contemporary minimalist decor, relaxed atmosphere, bay waterfront location plus view, professional service, and landmark Vietnamese food that sets the bar high for other Asian restaurants in a city with food always on its mind.
Bay Area Meets Vietnamese Cuisine
Asian cuisine has long permeated the local San Francisco restaurant landscape, ever since waves of Chinese and Japanese immigrants began arriving to the Pacific gateway city starting in the mid-1800s. For years, it was always easy to find chop-suey Chinese restaurants in Chinatown or sukiyaki Japanese restaurants with kimono-clad waitresses in Japantown. These were later joined by Thais, Koreans, and Filipinos with their respective restaurants. Vietnamese restaurants on the other hand were more like white tigers -- rare --- until Vietnamese refugees fled their homeland at the end of the Vietnam War. The Phan family was a part of this Vietnamese Boat People exodus, arriving in the United States in 1977.
Chef Phan got it all started in the mid-1990s. After growing up in the Bay Area and taking several left-right turns in his education and work career, the young Phan followed his bliss that was inspired by his mother's cooking and opened his first Slanted Door Restaurant San Francisco in the City's Mission District. It was a simple rendition with a humble menu. It didn't stay that way. By 2004, after three different moves, the current Slanted Door landed in its northeastern corner of the Ferry Building where you catch the ferry to Sausalito.
So, what can be said about Phan's restaurant? The first thing is it's always crowded and the second thing is the reason why-it's one of the City's best restaurants.
Phan's Defining Touch
Vietnamese cuisine by definition has long been influenced by two other fanciful cuisines, Chinese and French. (Read your history and you'll know why.) The Slanted Door Restaurant San Francisco is also guided by Northern California forces that incorporate local ingredients with an emphasis on organic, biodynamic and fresh ingredients whenever possible. That includes anything from local oysters to lamb to heirloom bok choy. What stands out about Chef Phan's restaurant is that his food appeals across ethnic and socioeconomic lines and flits back and forth in a high-low context. It's simple cuisine with refinement, complex flavors, a cosmopolitan but rustic demeanor, and original. Is it fusion? Well, don't expect a bowl of Pho noodles on the menu with foie gras.
Specialities of Slanted Door Restaurant San Francisco
You can expect to find Vietnamese dishes with a range of flavors and textures that are marked by levels of heat derived from ginger or peppers to others of caramelized sweetness. Like most Asian cuisine, it's best to order family style choosing several small-to-large plates and share amongst your party to get a smattering taste of the appetizers, soups, salads, vegetables, seafood, and meat dishes. Phan's menu is always a work-in-progress and seasonally dependent; but, here are some samples of what to expect:
- Rolls - There are usually a handful of rolls on the menu that are soft or crispy with vegetables, herbs, seafood, and meat to get your taste buds warmed up. Check out the Alaskan Black Cod roll with rau ram leaf, a type of coriander distinctive in Vietnamese cooking.
- Appetizers - There are sweet bbq spareribs or sweet-peppery shrimp that are reliably delicious. At lunchtime go for the ethereal Vietnamese crepes (vegetarian or shrimp-pork combination) and don't be shy to lick your fingers. If the daikon cakes are on the menu, you'll never think a radish could be such a joyful experience.
- Salads - Duck confit may be a French standard but not when it's been five-spiced in a Slanted Door salad.
- Meat - The shaking beef is a seismically tasty.
- Seafood - A personal favorite is a caramelized fish that has been braised in a claypot with ginger and chilis. The savory fish melts in the mouth in a warm and gelatinous ooze.
- Vegetables - Why not the organic lemongrass tofu with chili sauce and shiitake mushrooms? No? Okay then, try the spicy haricot vertes with honshimeji mushrooms.
Intriguing Wines, Off-beat Beers, Whimsical Drinks and Tea
The Slanted Door has put a lot of thought into their wine and beer list. If you are unfamiliar with any of the unusual choices offered, seek advice from your server or bartender and they'll help you find something that suits your meal.
Don't expect to find big and jammy California Zinfandel fruit bombs on the wine list. Those types of heavy-bodied fruit-bombs don't meld well with nuoac mam (fish sauce), peanut sauce, or caramel sauce-based food. Low alcohol and slightly sweet, balanced, or dry wines work magic with Vietnamese fare. Consequently, Slanted Door's wine list is categorized by Herbal/Dry, Floral/Dry, and Floral/German whites with an emphasis on German Rieslings, Austrian herbal Grünet Veltliners, and Loire Muscadets and Vouvrays. Reds that work tend to have a softer body profile with lower tannins that work better with spicier foods.
Slanted Door does not take beer for granted either. They have found that German and Belgian lagers and ales work best. I'm a big fan of their dark and nutty Reutberger Kloster Dunkel lager.
Tea is a big deal for Chef Phan and there are no flo-thru teabags in sight.
There are many serious cocktails to be drunk here and they have a zingy Bloody Mary that would wake up an Egyptian mummy.
Getting a Seat
As mentioned above, the Slanted Door is always crowded. It's open daily for lunch and dinner. The phone is usually a long wait so you're better off getting a reservation through online. You can also try your luck walking in for an early lunch around 11 AM or dinner at 5:30 PM. You may still have to wait for a table. Better yet, if you are a small party of two to three people then you may have luck jockeying for a seat at the bar. It's the same menu and you get to watch the action up close and personal. Don't be surprised if people hover behind the bar waiting to wedge their way in.
I am a loyal customer of the Slanted Door Restaurant San Francisco and have been for years. Hopefully it will stay put for awhile; but, if Chef Phan decides to move again I'll follow him there. Put it on your list of things to do in the City.