The Slanted Door

Barbara Ries

Being a refugee, you always have a backup plan," says Charles Phan. That would make Phan's elegant San Francisco restaurant, the Slanted Door, one of the greatest backup plans in the history of the business. The 46-year-old chef and restaurateur fled Vietnam in 1975 and, after arriving in the United States, studied architecture and worked in the kitchens of Bay Area eateries. Today, he and his extended family preside over one of the most widely and deservedly adored restaurants in this dining-obsessed city. If a single restaurant can be said to symbolize our era's version of the American dream, the Slanted Door is it. The cuisine is Vietnamese at heart; these are the clean-tasting, boldly textured foods I know from my own Vietnamese-American upbringing: salads of juicy papaya, crackly-crisp spring rolls, and catfish braised in a clay pot, redolent of chiles and fish sauce. Yet the menu bursts with ingredients that proudly announce their American provenance: the beef in the bo luc lac—cubed tenderloin seared with soy vinaigrette and fish sauce —is from Niman Ranch; the grilled lemongrass pork chops come from locally raised Berkshire hogs; the sunchokes that go with the rack of lamb are California born and bred. And the food, instead of displaying a backward-gazing preoccupation with authenticity, reflects an embrace of where Phan and his family are now. I always marvel at the tables packed with hipsters, tourists, and businesspeople feasting on Phan's beautiful renditions of Vietnamese classics—dishes that honor both the essence and the marvelous potential of that country's cooking. —Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006)