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The Taste of Change 

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
The Tenderloin, historically San Francisco's most vice-ridden neighborhood, is also, perhaps, its most tolerant and diverse community. It's a home to seniors and children, to people of every race and nationality, to those who have fallen on hard times, and to those who've simply chosen to live in the "TL." And many of these neighborhood residents are putting everything they have into making it a better place. There's a new grade school, a new children's playground, a corner where people used to sell drugs but don't anymore. No sweeping renewal; just a slow metamorphosis, one marked by small changes here and there.

A perfect example of this metamorphosis is Turk Street's Phong Lan, which sits at the Tenderloin's southeast corner just a few blocks from Nordstrom and the Powell Street BART station. Richard, a friend who's worked in the neighborhood for 15 years, recommended Phong Lan both for its splendid Vietnamese cuisine (the restaurant's chef used to cook at Sixth Street's much-lauded Tu Lan) and because of the story behind it. Once, 45 Turk housed a bar called the Peter Pan, which offered, among other things, young men for hire (as well as your standard fights and the occasional knifing). When the Peter Pan closed down five years ago, a mother and her two adult sons converted the place to a restaurant -- Phong Lan. They didn't even have to change all the letters on the sign out front.

Though Phong Lan has since acquired a new sign, the place still resembles the cocktail lounge it once was, from the Lite Beer lampshade hanging over the pool table to the dark, wooden bar where a few locals were watching television when I arrived. Though the Tenderloin is a very urban neighborhood, it has the feel of a small town in many ways. People know each other and say hello as they pass on the street. "Richard!" said John, one of the two sons who helps run the place, as my acquaintance strolled through the door.

You see what I mean? I got the sense that, if I came back a few more times, I, too, would receive such a greeting.

In addition to serving as Phong Lan's waitstaff, John and his brother also make deliveries via bicycle in the neighborhood and downtown. As for Mom -- well, she does the cooking, just as she did at Tu Lan before going into business for herself. With over 100 items on the menu, Phong Lan offers a stunning variety of appetizers, soups, and entrees, and hardly a single dish costs over $5. Mom slid off her barstool and headed for the kitchen as we made our selections. Given the low prices, I vowed to keep her busy for a while.

We began with the imperial rolls ($3.50) -- two generously sized rolls, deep-fried to a perfect state of crispiness, stuffed with pork, noodles, carrots, and onions, and served with traditional, vinegar-based fish sauce. Oil crackled in the kitchen as Mom worked her magic and Richard and I discussed a variety of neighborhood and citywide issues -- you know, rising rents, rents rising, the ever-increasing amounts of green stuff people must now pay for housing, which will in turn prevent young bohemians from moving to San Francisco and infusing it with the new blood all cities need. Our conclusion? Rising rents kind of suck (we may have been a bit more eloquent than that), unlike our next dish, Phong Lan's incomparable Vietnamese-style chicken salad ($3.75).

If ever you find yourself burning up in Boeddeker Park, if you are overtaken by mugginess on Market Street, if the Fahrenheit rises on O'Farrell, if you are sweltering South of Market, or even feeling a bit tepid on Turk, you will find no better pick-me-up than Phong Lan's miraculous chicken salad. A heavenly blend of cabbage, carrots, and ground peanuts, sprinkled with vinegar and flecked with pieces of boiled chicken and cool, fresh mint, the dish proved an icy salad, a chilly salad, a soothing salad, a poignant salad, a salad for the ages, one that may well confer immortality on those who eat it, or, if nothing else, leave them with the crisp satisfaction that comes from enjoying an exemplar of true mastery of that most uncooked of vegetable-based creations -- the salad.

Well, after a salad like that, I figured, things could only go downhill. Fortunately, the mixed seafood soup with rice noodles ($3.95) kept the good times rolling, offering hearty portions of crab, calamari, prawns, and fish balls in a light chicken broth. I was equally impressed by the Vietnamese-style cubed beef ($4.60) -- tender beef and sautéed onions served with half-moons of fresh tomato. The dish was bathed in an exquisite, teriyaki-style sauce that allowed the flavor of the beef to come through nicely.

The bean cake with vegetables over crispy noodles ($3.75) was a tad bland, however, though the mix of cabbage, baby corn, broccoli, carrots, and mushrooms sprang to life once I added a little soy sauce (and this was the only dish that needed additional seasoning). The squid curry ($4.95), on the other hand, proved delightful, if a bit dangerous, and featured calamari, green bell peppers, potatoes, carrots, and onions in a mild yellow curry. Why dangerous? Well, if you're a foolish person who, like me, is prone to sticking any old thing in your mouth, the occasional, fiery-looking pepper that accompanied the curry might prove your undoing. This is what I told Richard as it kicked in: "I'm not usually a ... [imagine a sort of choking, raspy, gasping sound, followed by a few tears and me waving my napkin in surrender]."

Luckily, Phong Lan also offers water and rice (free), which took the edge off the murderous pepper just in time for our final dish, the combination chow fun ($4.95). Featuring a somewhat thinner noodle than Chinese chow fun, the dish came with beef, chicken, shrimp, carrots, cabbage, and broccoli, all of which complemented each other perfectly.

As we finished, our waiter/proprietor dropped by to deliver the bill (less than $40 for seven courses and two beers, and the place is even cheaper for lunch). He told us that, as charming as the bar décor might be, a little remodeling lies in Phong Lan's future. Which seems a shame, in a way, since there's something wonderful about a family-owned restaurant being run amid the vestiges of a place where young men used to grow up way too fast. But oh well. Progress is progress, I guess, and I'm certainly not one to stand in its way.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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