February 25, 2005

Tu Lan: Too Much

Tu Lan, a long time Vietnamese restaurant has staked out its spot just south of the gritty corner of Sixth Street and Market. Stepping in the narrow storefront, one quickly realizes that Tu Lan's main concern is to rapidly turn out tasty Vietnamese meals. The smoky, rich smell of grilled meat, garlic, green onions and fish sauce coming from the open kitchen the left hits the nose like a welterweight's jab once entering. The decor is simple and utlitarian--replete with chipped, brown Formica tables packed tightly together.

The numbered menu features 77 items, all standard Vietnamese fare. Various imperial rolls and grilled, stirfried, curried meats, seafood and vegetables served with rice noodles or rice.

Iris Yuan, Jackie (her co-worker), and Dave (a friend of a coworker's), and I stepped in just before 1pm on Friday. Although it was crowded, we were seated promptly. In part of town where "bang for the buck" isn't just what the numerous junkies do for their next fix, Iris and Dave knew that despite the promising variety of the normal menu, the way to go was with the Family Dinner. For us four, the menu promised steamed rice (check); tea (nope); cookies (nope); sour chicken soup (check); shrimp, beef and chicken salad (check); pork shish kebab & imperial roll (check & check); chicken with Vietnamese herbs (check); and beef cubes Vietnamese style (check). The dishes came nearly immediately, one after the other. It was as if Tu Lan was brashly taunting us, daring us to keep up. As we were tiring out, as a final affront on our appetites, the waiter plopped another giant plate of food on our table. For some reason, they gave us additional stir-fried vegetables and tofu in a noodle bird's nest.

The soup was piping hot, with chicken, bean sprouts, pineapple. It was sour, salty, and a little sweet all at once. The salad, consisting of citrus-marinated slices of beef, chicken, shrimp, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), cabbage, bean sprouts and carrots was also tangy. They were just right to get the palate ready for everything else.

The flavorful pork kebabs had been rubbed in spices and then grilled over an open flame and served with a fish sauce-based dipping sauce. The ground pork-stuffed imperial rolls, much wider than I've seen, were fried to a golden crunch, cut into bite-sized pieces and served with the same sauce.

The chicken first arrived in a sanely sized oval platter. However, after a minute of us picking at it, the staff grabbed it off the table, mumbling something about it being the wrong one. Fifteen puzzling seconds later, they returned with a twice-as-big, circular platter of chicken. While quite tasty, the sauce was gloppy, as if thickened with too much cornstarch or arrowroot.

Caramelized garlic and onions accompanied the stirfried cubes of beef. Other places call this "shaking beef" from the shaking motion used to toss the ingredients in the wok. Although cubed beef at most places proves to be tough and stringy, this was exceptionally tender. It proved to be the clear winner out of all the dishes.

The vegetables and tofu in the bird's nest was barely touched, due to our already sated state. They were packed up Dave and brought back to a vegetarian coworker of his.

Survival on San Francisco's skid row depends on having a tough attitude. Tu Lan has survived on its hardscrabble corner, no doubt, for well over 20 years because of its good food in big portions served up without pretention. Tu Lan challenged us four with enough food to feed eight. I have never been so happy to lose.

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