Vietnamese delights sing on the palate at Quan Bac 

Imagine a multicolored haystack mounded high on a white plate, the pale green of slivered cabbage, the orange of carrots, the pink of red onion, the beige of grilled chicken, interwoven with dark-green threads of kaffir lime leaf, cilantro and basil.

The tawny top, like a mountain covered in snow, is blanketed with savory fried-rice powder, shallots and peanuts. Everything glistens in a sheer, aromatic dressing redolent of fresh lime, and each bite takes the mouth on an exploration of crunch.
What we have is Sarah Le’s Vietnamese chicken salad ($7.95), one of the culinary masterpieces of San Francisco, served at her new Inner Richmond district restaurant Quan Bac.

The inexhaustible Le has opened a number of small pho spots around town, but Quan Bac — which roughly translates to “northern eating place” — represents her defining moment as a businesswoman and a chef.

Her biggest place by far, Quan Bac is located in a former Japanese karaoke bar across the street from the Kaiser Permanente French Campus. With a long counter and booths in the front room, and a big sky-lit dining room on the other side of a bank of see-through tropical fish aquariums, the space can accommodate large parties or single diners comfortably.

Le has decorated it with rattan-backed chairs, dark wood tables and an endearing melange of personal knickknacks.

The only reason to pass up the thrilling chicken salad would be to have her lotus-root and jellyfish salad ($7.95), framed by big shrimp chips, which add yet another dimension of crunch.

Her versions of North Vietnam street food are better than any I’ve had while perched on low plastic stools on the sidewalks of Hanoi.

Banh xeo ($8.95) — a puffy,  tumeric-tinted Vietnamese crepe — gets sweetness from coconut milk and earthiness from ground mung beans in the batter. It’s folded over a filling of mung-bean sprouts, shrimp and barbecued pork.

Tear off hunks of the hot pancake, place on lettuce leaves with pickled vegetables and torn herbs, and spoon on clear, sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. Roll the whole thing up. Could anything be more delicious?

Well, yes, Le’s Bun Cha Ha Noi ($8.95). This bowl of juicy little charcoal-grilled pork patties, so moist and fragrant, and thin slices of charcoal-grilled pork chop comes with the same setup as the crepe, but with cold, rice vermicelli topped with chopped peanuts. 

The pork, hot off the grill, is splashed with dipping  sauce, which migrates to the bottom of the bowl and picks up the meat juices. Be sure to spoon this rich sauce into your lettuce rolls.

If you want more than street food, consider Vietnamese charcoal-grilled, marinated free-range chicken ($11.95 for half) served with fried sticky-rice cakes. The delicious, chewy pieces, cut through the bone, pick up the flavor of the fire.

On the other hand, why not stay on the street with Le’s pho ga ($6.75), chicken noodle soup, an elegantly clear, rich broth with flat rice noodles, still a little al dente, with thin slices of white onion and fresh herbs that release their flavor as the boiling hot broth is poured over them.

Le must have put every dish in her repertoire on Quan Bac’s endless menu, but I can’t get past the lettuce-wrapped bites and the chicken soup — not really such a terrible problem, I suppose.

Quan Bac

Location:
4112 Geary Blvd. (between Fifth and Sixth avenues), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 668-8898
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: $6.95 to $14.95
Recommended dishes: Pho ga, cha gio, Vietnamese crepe, chicken salad, lotus-root salad, fish cake, Vietnamese barbecue chicken
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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