As a longtime fan of Charles Phan and The Slanted Door restaurant, I have been waiting patiently for his much anticipated cookbook, “Vietnamese Home Cooking.” It had been promised for a long time but now has finally arrived! The Slanted Door has been a favorite of locals and foodies since it opened in the Mission District in 1995 (drawing visitors such as President Clinton and Mick Jagger) and is still one of the most popular restaurants in town. By 2004, it had outgrown its space in the Mission, and Charles moved into a much larger space in the San Francisco Ferry Building where The Slanted Door is still garnering attention and praise. The combination of the beautiful modern space, the fresh upscale take on classic Vietnamese cuisine, and an emphasis on fresh high quality ingredients hit high notes with its admirers. There are also three offspring restaurants called Out The Door with locations in Pacific Heights, the Ferry building and The Westfield Center. Each location has its own unique menu. Not content to stop there, Charles is also the man behind The Academy Café and The Moss Room located inside The California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park. He also has recently returned to the Mission with his take on Chinese street food at Wo Hing General Store and Heavens Dog (a modern Chinese cuisine eatery that includes a celebration of “pre-prohibition era” cocktails). I am not surprised he hasn’t gotten around to a cookbook until now; it seems he has been very busy! All this from a man with no formal cooking background and who’s only restaurant experience before opening one was busing tables. So how does someone with no formal background in the food business get to be one of the most successful restaurateurs in the country? The clues are in the book.
What do all successful chefs have in common? For starters, they have a passion and love for family and food, and if they’re lucky enough, someone special who taught them from an early age. In the book Charles has included his mother’s recipe for spring rolls and his aunt’s recipe for meatballs along with his early recollections of growing up in Vietnam that inspired him. Like all good food, his cooking comes straight from the heart. When I heard the book was coming out, I was excited at the prospect of creating these wonderful recipes at home as there are so many of my favorites in here. This book however is so much more than a collection of recipes. This book is a guide to the cuisine of Vietnam, including the necessary tools to create this fabulous cuisine at home, with everything from the proper way of seasoning a wok or clay pot, to the right way to chop lemongrass. Vietnamese food is a bit mysterious and intimidating for many in the western world; technique, tools, and ingredients are very important. Shortcuts don’t work here, but the time it takes to do it correctly brings with it many rewards. It might take a little effort to find the right tools and ingredients, but believe me the results will justify the effort. In the preface, Charles explains that his intention was to help cooks understand the “Vietnamese aesthetic”…not just the way to cook, but the way to eat as well. To this end, the book is divided into chapters according to technique as opposed to courses (the way we are used to in the West). This is because a typical Vietnamese meal is not divided up in courses, but usually served all at once, family style, featuring several dishes that might include soup, a stir-fry, something deep fried, and something grilled or braised. Whereas a bowl of soup might contain various perfectly balanced components of flavor (like salty, sweet, spicy, and sour along with various textures) so it is true with the entire meal. To help out the novice there is a great glossary complete with photographs of the condiments and ingredients you will need to get started. The book also contains many photos of the dishes to inspire you, as well of some great pictures of Vietnam.
Tonight I made one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, Bo Luc Lac: Shaking Beef. I have eaten it many times before, and I have made it a few times with mixed results. It has been on the menu at The Slanted Door since it opened and it is truly the best I’ve eaten in any restaurant. Many places use inferior cuts of meat, which lead to…you guessed it…inferior Bo Luc Lac! The Slanted Door uses grass fed filet mignon from Estancia, at a rate of 800 pounds a week! Fortunately, I only need a pound and a half. The recipe calls for cooking the meat in two batches so that it cooks properly: it may be a bit of a hassle, but it is so worth the effort. It is this attention to detail and the sourcing of the best ingredients that make his food stand out. The morsels of filet came out dark and caramelized on the outside, and pink and juicy on the inside…perfection! It has sweetness from the sugar, a note of sour from the vinegar, black pepper, fresh scallions, red onion and garlic, all on top of a bed of refreshing watercress. It is served with a dipping sauce of lime juice, pepper and salt. I really can’t wait to serve this for company!
If you have never had a Vietnamese meal you are truly missing out. It is such an amazing, exciting, and satisfying cuisine. It is a very colorful melting pot of influence from China, France and its neighbors with a healthy portion of fresh ingredients, vegetables, and herbs. It is little wonder that Charles has struck such a chord in San Francisco, with our love of food and his emphasis on quality fresh ingredients. If you want to try some exceptional Vietnamese food, go over to The Slanted Door. If you enjoy cooking, I am sure you will want to try cooking some of this amazing food at home; if so, “Vietnamese Home Cooking” by Charles Phan is the place to start. I hear that another book is planned that will emphasize recipes from the restaurant. I am already looking forward to that one as well.