Last month, SF Weekly moved offices to within a mile of Chinatown, allowing me to embark on a new project: systematically visiting a different Chinatown restaurant each week, starting at Powell and Vallejo and moving south and west as I go. Maximum entrée price permitted: $10.
With the word "pho" in Pho Vung Tau's name, you'd think that noodle soup would be on every table. But it doesn't appear on the photographs on the restaurant's front window, and when I walked in, only one guy was bent over a steaming bowl, mouth connected to the surface of the broth by a fat skein of noodles.
The couple across the room were wrapping lettuce leaves around imperial rolls and dipping them into a bowl of nuoc cham, and a couple of lone lunchers were circling around their combo rice plates, moving from grilled chicken to pork and pickled vegetables. And so, though I had every intention of looking for a proper bowl of southern Vietnamese-style pho, I ordered a bowl of cold rice noodles, or bun, instead.
After Larkin Avenue, Chinatown has San Francisco's second-biggest cluster of Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco -- which makes sense, given that many are owned by ethnic Chinese Americans whose families came here from Vietnam. There are photo-murals of Vietnamese beaches on the walls (which I assume are at Vung Tau, a coastal city near Ho Chi Minh City) as well as multicolored Chinese banners hanging from the walls.
In proper Chinatown style, the menu lists rice plates with kung pao beef as well as grilled pork chop and chicken noodle soup. The bun with grilled pork and grilled shrimp that arrived was heavy on the skinny rice noodles, and thinner on lettuce, cucumber, and bean sprouts than I'd prefer. Vung Tau's nuoc cham was puckery at full strength, so it took only a few spoonfuls to coat the noodles and meats. While the sweet, fragrant marinade on the pork came through, the unmarinated shrimp was grilled to the point where the meat went mealy. More of a functional bowl of bun than a great one.
Pho Vung Tau: 708 Vallejo (at Stockton), 677-4171.