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Enter the (Green) Dragon 

Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
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Thanh Long
4101 Judah (at 46th Avenue), 665-1146. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 4:30 to 10 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Reservations strongly advised. Parking: takes some cruising. Muni via the N Judah and the 18 46th Avenue.

The last time I ate at Crustacean (the piscine palace on Polk), a waiter overheard my mutters about the long haul from the Upper Haight. "Do you know about our parent restaurant, Thanh Long, out on Judah?" he asked. "The menu is similar to ours, but it should be a quicker trip and their prices are a little lower, too."

I recollected claustrophobia amid swamp-green walls that seemed to sweat with a malarial sheen. "I used to go to Thanh Long for crab, but jeez -- what a dump!" I answered.

Then we heard that Thanh Long had been remodeled. I was struck by a vision of Vietnamese crab sans greasy green paint.

In outer Judah's maritime mists, TJ and I met up with Julie and her Vietnamese husband Steve. As we paused to observe the teen-age drivers' brake-squealing demolition derby in the 7-Eleven lot across the street, a tiny, permed Asian businesswoman came striding down the sidewalk, cell phone tight against her ear. At Thanh Long's door she hung a sharp looie and marched briskly inside. We followed, joining a merry multitude sipping tropical-looking, neon-hued cocktails at the tropical-looking bar, while we waited 20 minutes for our reserved table. If glowing green cocktails make you worry that Captain Hook's the mixmaster, a hip, merciful wine list (about 200 percent of retail), smartly grouped by style ("Floral and Dry," "Voluptuous"), offers unusual, affordable choices (Auslese, Vouvray, Australia's Rosemount chardonnay) that complement Southeast Asian flavors. We were shown to a comfortable corner, where three of us sank into the banquette that runs around three walls of the main dining room, with TJ on a wooden chair opposite. The pastel walls have a flowering Asian tree design. (A secondary dining room has green walls -- but in a sweat-free matte pale jade.) The menu revealed that the name "Thanh Long" started as a printer's error -- and was also the likely source of the color scheme.

The owners, the An family, had chosen "Thang Long" -- ascending dragon -- for their new restaurant, but a typo turned it into "Thanh Long," or green dragon. Since green symbolizes prosperity and happiness, the Ans decided the mistake was auspicious, stuck with it, and duly prospered. Today, Thanh Long is one of the city's oldest Vietnamese restaurants, and is run by the Ans' oldest granddaughter; other offspring run the Polk Street Crustacean and the latter's brand-new Beverly Hills sibling.

"I like the appetizers here best; I think they're the best part of Vietnamese meals," murmured soft-spoken Julie as we studied the menu. "We've found this true of a lot of non-Vietnamese restaurants, too," said TJ. "Restaurants often put more work into the starters." Taking Julie's hint, we ordered a lot of them. She was right. A shrimp roll ($3) was a terrific version of the classic, with rice paper wrapped around noodles, chopped prawns, crunchy vegetables, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), and, in a special touch, diced mango. Mussels with Vietnamese "pesto" ($7.95), resembling a popular appetizer at Crustacean, had small black mussels (overcooked by about two seconds) lending an excuse for a delectable sweetish green sauce in the shells, with baguette slices to sop every drop. The evening's special of salmon carpaccio had near-transparent slices of raw fish scattered with lemongrass and capers; the texture hinted at a brief "cure" in a subtle winy marinade that imbued the flesh with lemongrass flavor. Spectacular butterflied prawns ($8) were fried in paper-thin wonton wrappers; each "packet" held a single strip of scallion and a surprise -- a strip of pancetta, lending a shock of bacon flavor. (The orange-hued dipping sauce, though, was nothing special.)

Mango seafood salad ($7.95) was another delight, a bed of radicchio-dominant spring mix, dressed in raspberry vinaigrette, topped with perfectly ripe, sweet mango cubes, and with seared scallops and shrimp in a tasty spicy-sweet glaze. The scallops' doneness covered every possibility except overcooked -- they were all tender. "It's really fantastic," said TJ, "to taste scallops going from raw to medium to seared all in the same dish. I'm sure it's deliberate." The one mediocre dish was shrimp toast ($7.95) with lightly toasted French bread slices (still soft in the middle) topped with a bouncy shrimp mousse (of the type that's often wrapped around sugar-cane sticks). "We make this at home almost every day," said Julie. "But we make the bread crisper," Steve added. "This is more like shrimp bread than shrimp toast," Julie decided.

"The cooking here isn't fully Vietnamese," she mused. "Just a few of these dishes are traditional -- the shrimp toasts, the rice paper rolls. Most are more creative, with influences of European food."

"Well," I said, "I've been thinking lately that 'fusion food' seems to come out better when it's done by Asian chefs incorporating European elements, rather than vice versa." Encouraged by Steve's nods, I continued, "Anyplace that Europeans colonized, chefs really learned how to cook the colonizers' cuisines, and can blend those flavors gracefully into their own traditions. Whereas some American chefs just throw in 'Pacific Rim' ingredients without understanding their contexts, so the combinations come out awkward and show-offy rather than good-tasting."

The Ans built their restaurant empire on overcooked roast crab -- and my last meal at Crustacean, it was still overcooked. At Thanh Long, we had roast, drunken, or tamarind to choose from (same as at Crustacean), and we chose drunken crab ($28.95). It was overcooked, too, despite a great, crabby wine sauce. "The sauce is very good but the crab is just ordinary," said Julie, understating daintily on both counts. Like everybody else in the restaurant, we enjoyed an order of amazingly delicious garlic noodles ($7), Thanh Long's second-most-famous dish. Succulent Shanghai-type noodles are dusted with a home-grown shake 'n' bake mixture of garlic powder, sugar, and salt, but the garlic powder sure doesn't taste like Schilling-McCormick -- the flavor's subtle, with none of the scorched undertone of the supermarket stuff.

"Villager's Favorite" ($11.25) was our favorite entree, too, with sauteed pork and prawns in a light, vibrant sauce redolent of caramelized sugar and ample black pepper. "And maybe a touch of -- how do you pronounce the Vietnamese fish sauce?" I asked. "Nguoc manh," said Julie. "See, it rhymes with 'Look, Mom!' with the same upward tone on 'look.' " "Nguk, Mom!" I chirped. "It's nice, a lot subtler than Thai nam pla, way milder than Philippine patis." A dish of stuffed chicken ($10.50) had ovals of breast with greaseless skin tightly adhering to the meat, rolled around a black-peppery filling similar to pork siu mai dimsum. Assorted vegetables floated in the mild, sweet sauce. "For special occasions, the whole chicken is deboned without cutting it up, and the bones are replaced with this stuffing," Steve commented. "Some people make the stuffing better, some make it worse. This is regular stuffing," he decided. Shaken beef ($14.50) had very tender filet mignon chunks served atop a wilting salad. "The salad is traditional, but this sauce is not," said Julie. "The texture of the beef is good but the taste is tame," said Steve. "It should be more tangy, like the Villager's Favorite sauce," Julie summed up.

For dessert there's a choice of fried ice cream, or fried banana or fried pineapple with unfried ice cream. We had scoops of mango and hazelnut fried ice cream. Served on pools of light creme anglaise with mandala patterns of melted chocolate, the batter on the ice cream balls was sweet and thickish (and mainly got left over), and the contents were very mango-y or very hazelnutty. "Polly Ann brand?" I asked. "No, Marco Polo," said Julie. "Polly Ann is too creamy, Marco Polo is more like gelato, tropical ice cream with intense fruit flavors." As we drifted out into the drizzle, Julie whispered, "We're sorry, we don't know that much about food." We sputtered in protest; "This review would be impossible without you," I said.

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Naomi Wise

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