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One garlicky reason to ride off into the Sunset District

Wednesday, May 4 2005
If you think long and hard, you can probably come up with a half-dozen good reasons to schlep out to the Sunset District: the ocean views, the chance you'll run into Chris Isaak in a wet suit, the acres of free parking ... did I mention Chris Isaak?

Historically, of course, there have always been any number of excuses for avoiding the trek out to the flatlands -- first and foremost of which is the weather (has anyone seen my hand lately? It was right here in front of my face a minute ago), followed closely by the food.

When I was growing up in the Inner Sunset, there were only a handful of restaurants my family would publicly acknowledge as part of the Sunset pantheon, among them Pasquale's Pizza and Leon's BBQ. (Privately, of course, we all harbored a secret fetish for the Doggie Diner, but some family skeletons are best left in the closet.) And as far as serious, plan-ahead, destination eateries went -- well, the landscape back then was about as barren as Fort Funston on an arctic afternoon in July.

All that changed when Thanh Long (4101 Judah, 665-1146, stepped onto the scene. Started in the early '70s by family matriarch Diana An, the Sunset outpost was one of the city's first Vietnamese restaurants, and something of a novelty for folks of the non-Asian persuasion. Certainly, it took my family a good decade to discover it -- partly because we were a little timid about venturing culinarily beyond sweet-and-sour pork, and partly because we stubbornly refused to believe that a top-notch white-tablecloth restaurant could exist as far out as 46th Avenue.

To this day, even though most of the free world has now tasted the An family's famous garlic butter-slathered roast Dungeness crab and side of noodles, I drive down Judah past the blocks and blocks of ticky-tacky Sunset Specials, the eerie silence broken only by the clanging of the streetcar, half expecting it not to be there. Then, just as I'm reaching into my purse to double-check the address, I see the Cadillacs -- a full row of them rising from the mists like the village in Brigadoon -- and next to them, gaggles of fancily dressed folks waiting patiently outside a dimly lit doorway: folks of every possible ethnic persuasion, folks who stand at opposite ends of the economic and political spectrum but who unilaterally agree that the world would be a lesser place without Thanh Long's roast crab and garlic noodles.

On a recent Sunday night the place was jampacked, and even though we had reservations, we ended up waiting at the bar for upward of 45 minutes. (Luckily, the specialty cocktails are big and tasty.) When we finally sat down, the aroma of garlic hung so heavy in the air I could taste it on my tongue. Of course, I got the crab (it's almost insulting not to), but frankly it's the slightly sweet and oily garlic noodles I'd really come for. They're crafted with an elusive blend of spices, the exact nature of which many a mortal has been driven to the brink trying to figure out. The recipe is a long-held family secret, and not just so the restaurant can say "secret family recipe" on its menus. The Ans take their noodles very seriously, so much so that they make them in a separate kitchen to keep out nosy food writers. I long ago gave up grilling the waiters for clues as to what makes these slippery soba strips so painfully addictive. Now I just accept that they arrive at my table, wafting whatever it is they're wafting, giving me a reason beyond Chris Isaak to ride off into the Sunset.

About The Author

Bonnie Wach

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