When Charles Phan's Vietnamese Home Cooking hit my desk a few weeks ago, I read it cover to cover. It's the local chef's long-anticipated first cookbook, full of recipes from his celebrated Slanted Door restaurant as well as dishes Phan grew up with and now cooks at home. The gorgeous 220-page volume is packed with personal anecdotes from the streets of Vietnam and glossy glamour shots of the food that made me hungry just looking at them. As authentic as the recipes are, however, many are also complicated and require an investment in a new pantry of ingredients. They didn't inspire me to cook as much as they inspired me to revisit Phan's restaurants.
Instead of negotiating the crowds and prices at the Slanted Door proper, I headed to Phan's casual Vietnamese concept, Out the Door, to find the food that the cookbook had made so appealing. There are two locations in the city — one attached to the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building that's little more than a lunch counter, the other a swankier affair in Lower Pacific Heights replete with marble tabletops, obsequious service, and prices that would only be "casual" to a 1 percenter. At both, I found the surprising twists on classic dishes and commitment to high-quality ingredients that have gained Phan so many accolades over the years, and highlight why his recipes, as unfamiliar as they may be, are worth getting excited over.
Everyone starts with the spring rolls at Phan's restaurants, a standard-issue Vietnamese dish he made legendary thanks to a secret sauce of shallot mayo. The recipe's headnote explains the sauce came from Phan's mother, who thought to make aioli out of the leftover oil from frying shallots when she lived in Vietnam. The mayo adds a barely discernible earthy note to the impeccably fresh rolls, making them a standout in their own right instead of a mere vehicle for peanut sauce like at so many lesser restaurants — a nice trick to have in your culinary repertoire.
Other starters had the same blend of familiarity and invention. Ban xeo, rice flour crepes, are ubiquitous at Vietnamese restaurants, but this was one of the best I've ever had. The crepe was crispy on the outside with a custardy interior studded with shrimp that had likely started the morning in the ocean. The crepe had just enough greasiness without becoming heavy. The papaya salad was elegant, a mountain of julienned green papaya and carrots in a spicy-sweet fish sauce dressing and capped with a drift of fried onions. Every bite had contrasting textures and flavors, a hallmark of Vietnamese cooking.
Out the Door relies on organic, sustainable ingredients, making the prices higher than your average pho joint, but the difference in quality is apparent, especially in the meat dishes. Mary's Organic poultry is the star of the five-spice chicken — the bird's essence shines through the dull heat of the spices and the salt from a fermented bean curd rub. It's a versatile dish that plays equally well on a banh mi or over vermicelli noodles and rice.
Phan's attention to quality, expensive ingredients works because he knows how to best utilize them, and has a customer base willing to pay the premium, whereas even experienced home cooks may want to leave dishes like shaking beef to the professionals. It's a signature of Phan's that subs in filet mignon for the more traditional tough cuts of beef, and the restaurant treats the meat with respect — the tender steak melts into its pepper seasoning, and sparkles when dipped into the accompanying light, lemony sauce.
Beef pho is another dish that may be better off left to a kitchen with the resources and equipment to do it justice. The recipe requires four different cuts of beef and a five-hour simmer on the stove, a major project that seems unnecessary when you could just nip around the corner and eat Phan's excellent Hanoi-style version yourself. Its clear, delicate broth tasted cleanly of beef, without the overwhelming sodium or MSG aftertaste of many a mediocre bowl.
There were a few disappointments. I wasn't as impressed with the Dungeness crab cellophane noodles as the legions on Yelp seem to be — it tasted like a one-note side dish that didn't justify the $20 price tag, despite perfectly cooked noodles and chunks of fresh crab. And though I had high hopes for the lemongrass pork chop based on the photos in the cookbook, it was disappointingly dry and didn't have anything to elevate it above ordinary.
Even if I never cook from the book, it will still become a treasured member of my library, joining cookbooks from chef-driven restaurants like Zuni, Tartine, and Lucques that I often thumb through for inspiration, or just vicarious eating. Phan's beautiful book shows why his cooking style, with its focus on quality ingredients and inventive twists to recipes, brings something new to the table — and why we're lucky to have him in our city for those nights we want his food without having to cook it ourselves.