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Fresh Eats: Vietnamese Country Meat Sauce Still Rules at Cordon Bleu 

Wednesday, Aug 10 2011

Feeling poor and hungry, we dropped into Cordon Bleu in Nob Hill and got to talking with proprietor Katie Yu.

Yu, from Hong Kong, has never been to Vietnam. In 1995, she bought the restaurant from its founders, who claimed to have opened San Francisco's first Vietnamese restaurant in 1968. "I didn't know how popular it is," she says. "The customers said, 'Don't change anything.'" She has added a few dishes, but "mostly people order 1 to 5," she says of the set meals that have been the same since the '60s.

We ordered No. 4: half a five-spice roast chicken with country salad and meat sauce on rice ($7.60). It was enough food for two, and Yu cheerfully provided share plates. Blackened skin on the open-flame-grilled chicken killed the five-spice; we couldn't taste it. But the chicken was juicy, and that's what we cared about most. Country salad was strips of cabbage and carrot; very simple.

Meat sauce on rice is Cordon Bleu's signature dish. Yu bought the recipe from the previous owner; she divulges that the meat is pork and the sauce has onions, tomatoes, and garlic, but "that's all I'm going to tell you." It was mild, a bit like spaghetti sauce, only with far less tomatoes, and we liked the way it pooled around the chicken. By the end we were eating the succulent meat sauce and leaving the chicken behind. Yu says, "The customers come here so often, their taste buds are better than mine. They'll tell me, 'The meat sauce is a little too spicy today.'"

We asked Yu how she serves massive portions at low prices. "I work two shifts," she says. "That's about to end. I can't do two people's jobs anymore." How long has she been doing it? "Sixteen years."

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W. Blake Gray

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