Ok, so I’ll be the first to admit it. Setting a goal to try all Top 100 restaurants as named by San Francisco Chronicle can get exhausting. Let’s face it, that’s a lot of eating out. And to be perfectly frank, I’m not always that excited about some of the restaurants on the list, whether that’s due to location, expense, or even longevity. Charles Phan’s Slanted Door is exactly one of the restaurants that I was feeling “meh” about; when the doors opened in my late 20′s, I was super excited about it. But since then, I’ve finished grad school, had a career and left it, had 3 kids, and oh, let’s not forget this one very important fact — Out the Door opened very close to my house.
So let’s just say that my will to try Slanted Door again was not incredibly high. But for the blog (and for a dinner out with 2 great friends who were moving soon to the Peninsula), I said sure.
The restaurant has been housed at the Ferry Building for a while now. Tourists and business dinners flock there, and I couldn’t help but miss the fresh, youthful vibe of its old Mission Street location. The restaurant is beautiful in a different way — vast, open, and set against the water. Its sleek environs suggest this is not your mom and pop’s Vietnamese joint.
But the dishes are still fairly classically Vietnamese, and I think you do yourself justice by sticking with these type of dishes. We did just that, ordering some stereotypical dishes to be shared family style.
First up, you can never go wrong with the Imperial Spring Rolls. It’s been over a decade and I still love these little crispy wonders, filled with cellophane noodles, julienned veggies, shrimp and — but of course — pork. Some people eat it just as is, but I like to roll mine up in the lettuce with a mint leaf to make me feel like it’s remotely good for me.
The Wills Ranch pork spareribs in a honey hoisin sauce was next. Pretty tasty, but earth-shattering? Not quite. But at least they give you a hot towel afterwards so you don’t have to feel sticky the rest of the meal.
Wow, here’s an entirely unappetizing picture of chicken wings! Sorry about that. This dish was totally reminiscent of that Chinese banquet chicken with crisp skin that’s served with lemon wedges, salt and white pepper, and shrimp chips. I have to say, while it was good, it wasn’t great. And at least at the Chinese banquet, they serve the entire chicken (including the head and ass — which always made for fun dinner games as a child, but I digress).
Caramelized gulf shrimp came next. I could have eaten an entire extra plate of this. My party found ourselves gently taking one each, seeing the scarcity of actual food on the plate. I don’t know what Vietnamese restaurant this is, but the portion size is definitely not authentic.
The shaking beef. Oh, how I loved the shaking beef the first time I had it. I still love it, with its tender cubes of filet (grass-fed Estancia, no less), tangy lime sauce, and spattering of red onions and watercress. Still, a great dish. And for me, nostalgic. So I will probably always love it (although I don’t still love my first boyfriend…but we are Facebook friends, which I think at least is a sign of fondness…).
Just your standard side dish of kohlrabi. Of course, I didn’t really know what that was, until we ordered it. Ends up it tastes like broccoli.
The chicken claypot, with caramel, ginger, and chilies was my hands-down favorite dish when I first went to Slanted Door. But much like my first boyfriend, while I’m fond of it now, I certainly don’t love it. It was kind of a let-down, perhaps built up after years of high expectations. Maybe it was me, but maybe it was Slanted Door.
And then of course, we had dessert. The chocolate cake, bread pudding, and creme brulee. Nothing too crazy here, but I did find it peculiar to find such traditionally American desserts at a Vietnamese restaurant. There was a hint of coconut in the bread pudding, but really, nothing else to remind me that I was in one of the most famous Vietnamese restaurants in the country.
Let’s be honest. I completely admire and respect Charles Phan for popularizing an amazing cuisine and bringing it not only to the forefront locally, but really, nationally. But he’s an empire now. And Slanted Door feels like it. It’s big. It’s modern. It’s sort of impersonal. And the portions are kind of chintzy, while the prices feel escalated. Sure, everything is local, sustainable, blah blah blah, but for real, I could go to Clement Street and get the same flavors for about a 1/4 of the price (I’m Chinese, I don’t mind iffy meat). Slanted Door at the Ferry Building is nothing like the original location in the Mission, which I revered for its warmth, accessibility, and great food.
If you want a taste of Phan’s Vietnamese, then I would suggest going to his Out the Door location on Bush Street. An homage to the old Mission location (yet ironically located in the posh Pacific Heights), Out the Door on Bush seems reminiscent of the old Slanted Door — set in a neighborhood, inviting, lively, and perhaps even a wee bit cheaper. The classics remain on the menu at Out the Door, so I say forgo the tourist trap at the Ferry Building and opt for Out the Door.
Finally, I’ll close with this funny. One of our dining companions posed this question: ”Is it better to be a twin or a conjoined twin?” I paused in answering, thinking this must be a trick question. Ends up, it evolved from a previous discussion with his sister-in-law, who, upon hearing the question, evidently thought conjoined twins might have the edge! That story not only gave me a laugh, but it reminded me that there are people who really are eternal optimists. So I think they should go to Slanted Door at the Ferry Building, and all the cynics can meet me over on Clement Street.
Bauer’s two cents here.