If you ask long-term San Franciscans what they go to Sixth Street for, almost all of them would say, "Tu Lan!" (For a small percentage, it might be prostitution or drugs.)
After an absence of just over a year, the Vietnamese restaurant beloved by Julia Child and Herb Caen and infamous for its filth and vermin has reopened, with nary a form of pestilence in sight.
The restaurant opens at 11 a.m., every table is filled by 11:02, and by 11:20 the air is smoky, as brusque and sweating servers drop plates at tables with cordless phones wedged between ear and shoulder. It's comforting, and the prices have barely budged, too. Indeed, three can feast for less than $40.
Imperial rolls (here with rice and pork kebab) were excellent, crisp and peppery. A lemon beef salad was less successful, lacking — in the words of a chef acquaintance — any punch or balance of flavors.
A pork-and-bean-cake dish was the standout, bursting with ginger, the bean cake custard-like through the center. Sour fish soup got mixed reactions (lack of balance again, although the fish was light and flaky) but might have fit better had it arrived first rather than last. Overall, the pork dishes are the best bet, just as at Tu Lan 1.0.
And Julia is still there, relegated to a photocopy of a photocopy at the back of the menu, a secondhand boast from 1981. She's a benevolent totem now. The Tonga Room may have barely changed at all in its recent renovation, but Tu Lan changed exactly enough.