On the front of Tu Lan’s yellowed menu is a mimeograph of a grinning, blousy Julia Child, standing on Sixth Street and chopsticking her endorsement. On the back of that same menu is a 30-year-old, grainy photocopy of Patricia Unterman’s Datebook review. It starts with this passage:
“Sixth Street between Market and Mission is one of the livelier blocks of the city, with bodies sprawled on the sidewalk, garbage-bag ladies resting on their bundles, panhandlers, and crazy guys without shoes. But if you walk fast, squeeze your pocketbook under your arm, and keep your eyes on the ground, you will probably reach Tu Lan.”
I did not have the pleasure of growing up in this beautiful city, so I’ve had to piece together rudimentary knowledge on Herb Caen, wild parrots and the dot-com boom (no, the earlier one). But the legacy of my predecessor at The San Francisco Examiner? I picked that up pretty fast.
For more than 30 years, Unterman has been respected for her savvy reviewing, her pursuit of The City’s untrodden foodways and her impressive recall of local dining lore. Stumbling onto Unterman’s breezy prose on Tu Lan’s menu, I was struck by what a long shadow she casts.
It also seemed like a fated place to review. In 1981, Unterman called Tu Lan the best Vietnamese restaurant in The City. More than three decades later, I’d see how it was holding up.
It’s a funky spot, no doubt. Surveying your fellow diners, try playing the “pimp or prostitute?” guessing game (I suggest hushed tones). Servers enter a closet to fill $6 carafes of wine, spiked with an astringency that hints at cleaning products. On one visit, I was unsettled by the prolonged stares of a laughing, gently rocking man; turns out he works there.
Most servers are long in the tooth, with careworn faces from working too long in a mid-Market Street dive. Don’t expect typical prompts to get you service (eye contact, extensive waiting, words). Tu Lan’s servers flow by you like a river around a pebble. Every now and again, one washes up at your table. Be Zen about it.
Back when Unterman reviewed Tu Lan, it wasn’t a known commodity. Now — I imagine her influence helped cause this — it’s in all the guidebooks. Winking concierges tell hotel guests they should hit Tu Lan for “a real San Francisco experience.” There are well over a thousand reviews on Yelp, most of them glowing.
But at this point, Tu Lan has earned its share of backlash; complainers on the Chowhound message board feel it doesn’t hold up to other nearby spots (Miss SaiGon, Turtle Tower, etc.). Sadly, I have to agree.
The vegetarian mi chay soup (a cousin of pho made with wheat noodles) was musty, with canned mushrooms redolent of the cellar. Curried chicken was goopy and overrun with bell peppers. The ginger sauce with the fried fish gave it a nice kick, but the battered filet had a bottom-feeder dankness.
The lemon beef salad, which Unterman loved back in the 1980s, did provide some citrus-cilantro brightness. Yet the beef was middling, and the slaw tasted old.
That’s not to say there weren’t highlights. Julia Child-approved imperial rolls (Unterman called them “top of their class”) were the crown jewels — crisp shells ensconcing densely packed seasoned pork and rice noodles.
Light and fluffy curry-fried rice was loaded with tender chicken, green onions and bits of fried egg. All of Tu Lan’s food is generous, but this dish was built for four.
The shaking beef came with tender, peppery little shreds of beef draped in sweet cooked onions. It wasn’t better than Slanted Door’s version (as some hyperbolists would have you believe), but it’s also a fraction of the price.
Warning: If you’re a petunia like me, plan on a jittery MSG headache. And if thrift compels you to finish your wine, this suffering will compound.
Is there any way I can still persuade you to visit Tu Lan? As perverse as this seems, I much enjoyed both my visits. The place is weird, outrageous, and you’re privy to some of The City’s best people-watching. And if you’re about to see a concert with $15 drinks — curse you, Warfield! — a $6 carafe starts to seem palatable. (Actually, scratch that: The wine is pure misery.)
Maybe I just want to like Tu Lan because of its connection to my predecessor. Like her, it’s real, unpretentious and has a long history in this city. That counts for quite a bit.