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18/03/2019 - 13:24

Vietnamese soul in Charles Phan’s cuisine

I was curious to visit Google Map to see why "Slanted Door" - a rare Vietnamese restaurant that has such a beautiful façade facing San Fransisco City’s sea port (California State – the USA). Then when I searched for the keyword of the boss’s name "Charles Phan", up to 16 million related results appeared. So the plan to meet him in early Pig Spring was immediately made...

Hue-style bánh bột lọc chay (vegetarian cassava dumpling cakes)

Careers choose people, but people do not choose careers

It took nearly two months to schedule an appointment via the clerk because Charles Phan is a man of work. Then the appointment had to be changed two to three times until the last time in the hotel, I received a message from the clerk that Charles Phan would see me within an hour at the "Slanted Door" Restaurant.

Surprisingly, this millionaire invited me to sit on the veranda of the restaurant part to avoid the noise from crowded guests part to breathe in the sea wind while chatting.

He took the cloth to clean the table, chairs himself and invited me to sit, then brewed the hot tea and started the enjoyable stories...

Born in 1962 in Dalat and moved to the United States at the age of 13, Charles Phan entered the profession as karma. He studied architecture at the University of California, and then worked part-time at an IT company. However, after working part-time in a restaurant, with the acquired knowledge of cuisine, in 1995, he opened The Slanted Door Restaurant in San Francisco and was famed for the modern way of making traditional Vietnamese dishes.

The author took a souvenir photo with Charles Phan (left)

In 2003, with a constantly-increasing number of guests, the Slanted Door moved to a new location with nearly 2,500 square meters in a building in Pier 3 and has remained there ever since.

Located right in the middle of the famous Ferry Building culinary tourism market, Vietnamese dishes here are not cheap, but The Slanted Door is always crowded with over 800 tables served each day. According to the survey by Restaurant Business, each year The Slanted Door earns tens of millions of US dollars with the top turnover on the list of private restaurants in San Francisco. When asked about the secret, Charles Phan did not hesitate to disclose, "I keep Vietnamese soul in American-style dishes.”

He also won the title of "Best Chef of California 2011", and the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Restaurant 2014 " title, compared to the cuisine's Oscar every year awarded to one of the best dining venues across the United States in terms of dish, space and service.

He said that since the award, the restaurant has got more than 3,000 phone calls per day to book mostly in the evening. Guests who want to have dinner have to book 4-6 weeks in advance. At the price of around USD 120 for two people and up to USD 200 for selecting the glasses of fine wine, the Slanted Door serves over a thousand guests every day, not to mention the takeaway dishes.

I have verified that when checking the price on travel website with $$$$ assessment (meaning expensive price), but up to 88% of nearly 11,000 assessments are good in service. What a reward for his enthusiasm.

Preserving Hue quintessence in cuisine

Right from the opening, Charles Phan tried to introduce purely Vietnamese dishes such as bánh xèo ( rice pancake folded in half), braised fish)... to international friends. Many gastronomic websites of popular newspapers such as San Francisco Chronicle, Gourmet or Zagat, New York Times and so on have publicized attractive dishes at Charles Phan's restaurant.

Knowing Vietnamese chef’s fame, on a trip to San Francisco when in office, former US President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea had dinner at the Slanted Door. He was also invited to Washington, DC to cook for the president at a charity ceremony.

And the third time was when Bill Clinton went to the Ferry Building to help Mrs. Hillary Clinton run for president. In addition, he once served food to Mrs. Michelle, former President Barack Obama’s wife.

Introduced by him to miến cua xào (fried crab vermicelli), a dish that, in his view, can be eaten every day without boredom, we nodded in agreement with the curiosity about rau răm (a sort of fragrant vegetable), thịt ba chỉ kho tàu (caramelized pork belly), thịt gà xào sả (chicken fried with citronella),Vietnamese filtered coffee ... in his menu.

While waiting for the main dish, we tried two appetizers at a rather high price of USD 15. We were served with nộm đu đủ chua ngọt (sweet-and-sour papaya salad) and bánh lọc chay (vegetarian) with soy sauce together with wooden chopsticks in Vietnamese style.

The feeling of pity for enjoying the most expensive popular food in life was swept away by the sophistication in decoration and Hue soul in the taste of these two dishes. Nộm đu đủ (papaya salad) is not bitter but brittle, well mixed sweet-and-sour fish sauce while bánh lọc bọc nhân đậu xanh ( with green bean) were very delicious with aromatic soy sauce blended with fried, sliced onion and onion leaves in Hue style

When the Thai employee asked if the dishes were pleasant to taste, I joked, "Just … 95% pleasant compared to tasting this at home because the remaining 5% is lacking a few people around speaking in Hue voice.”

Although the stomach was full, I still couldn't resist the first dessert seen in history ... of going to a restaurant. The plate of chocolate candy with cotton candy that I sometimes ate nearly 30 years ago was served solemnly in the best Vietnamese restaurant in the United States as commented by many food newspapers.

Thanks to Charles Phan, a silent ambassador who brought a corner of Hue cuisine to the United States...

Story and photos: PHAN QUỐC VINH

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