Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
It is impossible to feel isolated, or adrift, at Golden Flower, Chinatown's best Vietnamese restaurant. Over all of the years I have been eating lunch there, the long table that runs down the center of Golden Flower has always been occupied. Sometimes an office party fills up its seats, laughing at one another's jokes with polite, one-second delays; sometimes a group of high-school-age students takes over the table, girls at one end and boys at the other, each of them nose-to-broth with their bowls of pho. The waiters bustle through the tiny dining room, hips swiveling from right to left like flamenco dancers, in order to slip through the narrow gaps between the seats. There are barely 4 square inches of blank space between the dolls, figurines, wood carvings, posters, and hanging lights that cover the walls from tabletop to ceiling.
The waiters won't let anyone sit there for long, unattended. "Ready to order?" one asks just after I've flipped past the first page of the menu. Oh, no, not yet. "Ready to order?" Another one comes by a minute later. After a few demurrals, I finally make my pick.
In general, San Francisco's reputation for Southern-style pho pales in comparison to San Jose and Oakland. Now, Northern-style noodle soups this city can do, but Southern pho -- sweeter, more aromatic, filled with fresh herbs and bean sprouts that you dump into the bowl before giving the noodles their first stir-- generally doesn't get the nod from the pho cognoscenti.
Though those cognoscenti might dissent, I still think Golden Flower's house special bowl is as good as we get here: A noodle broth with the lilting fragrance of star anise and sweet shallot. Flank and brisket that disintegrate as you're plucking them out of the broth, and shavings of book tripe with a clean crunch and the barest hint of offal. Clear tendon braised so long that it's marshmallow-soft. The circles of lean rare beef that float on the surface of the broth always seem to be the last meat I finish, dipping the blander strips in a mix of hoisin and Sriracha that I've squirted into a side bowl.
The rice plates vary from a half-hearted chicken and onions sauteed with lemongrass to a more elaborate composition: grilled pork marinated with sugar, garlic and soy; julienned pork skin tossed with toasted rice flour; and a square of steamed omelet inset with thousands of glass noodles, which make the omelet slice look like the cross-section of a fiber-optic cable. On its own, Golden Flower's pork skin (bi) isn't my favorite, but wrapped with lettuce and a fistful of fresh herbs into spring rolls, it's fantastic, nutty and stretchy, a better counterpart to the vegetal crunch of the greens than the more common curls of shrimp.
Needless to say, no customer lacks for water or tea here, and a check appears the moment the waiters see your head lifting up from the table to look around. No one dines alone here, even if they have a table to themselves.
Golden Flower Vietnamese Restaurant 667 Jackson (at Grant), 433-6469.