Sometimes you just want a spot where you can hang out with a friend and hear each other speak, drink a few potent cocktails, graze on some tasty apps, and not have some pushy people crowding around you at a bar or evil-eyeing you for your seat. I know just the place.
I mentioned in tablehopper last month that ~LE COLONIAL~ was opening a pho bar in their upstairs lounge, and Chef Mike Yakura, inspired by a trip to Vietnam, was introducing some Vietnamese street food items on the modern Vietnamese menu. A pal and I went to check it out on a Tuesday—a very important fact, since this place reportedly gets mobbed on the weekend by 20-somethings with very white teeth, pastel shirts and a penchant for boozing it up.
I was quite content to sink into one of the rattan seating areas in a corner, with lazily rotating fans overhead and mismatched Asian rugs underfoot. There's also a balcony with heat lamps if you want to try snagging an outdoor table. The French Colonial atmosphere of the space has always been pleasing to me—it's a perfect place to get your expat groove on.
Le Colonial offers a variety of tropical cocktails ($8) that all manage to pack a nice woozy wallop by the time you finish your second one. Go nuts. So, the food. Now, full disclosure, I'm a big fan of trolling around Larkin Street and the Avenues for authentic Vietnamese food. Bad lighting, no problem. Raspberry sherbet-colored vinyl chairs, bring them on. $4.50 bowl of lip-smacking pho, excellent. Instead, here in the lounge, it's all flipped: the atmosphere is sultry, the lighting is flattering, and the food is double what you'd pay at most Vietnamese joints in town. But you knew this. You can't compare the two, really.
We started with the chao tom ($9), quenelles of minced prawn bound with egg white and wrapped on sugar cane and then grilled. Served with some rice noodles that had a peppery kick. Scrumptious. Slightly difficult to get the goods off the skewer, but these were my hands-down favorite.
I also enjoyed the banh xao tom ($9), a rice flour and mung bean crepe stuffed with tender prawns and sprouts. You tear bite-size pieces of it off and wrap it in a piece of fresh lettuce leaf, maybe slip some carrot inside, dunk dunk, delicious. The prawns were perfectly cooked, and tasted much better than what you'd get at most dives, I'll hand them that.
The caramel pork tenderloin ($11) was a little too deconstructed for me—seared pork tenderloin arrives in a bowl with two halves of a hard-boiled egg, some jalapeño slices, bell pepper, and on the side, a small mound of rice topped with crispy onion bits (an upgrade from the usual onion bits you get in some of the dive-ier places). The presentation was pretty, but I wanted it to come all mixed up so the flavors could blend together, especially that egg—not the easiest thing to do at the table, or share.
There are also a ton of other menu items, like mouth-melting braised pork ribs with five-spice and a sweet hoisin sauce ($11), or their duck spring rolls ($9), with duck confit inside, and accompanied by a flavorful ginger dipping sauce. There are two other kinds of spring rolls, plus cold noodle salads, coconut-crusted crab cakes… it's a long menu. Some things are not quite street food, but whatever, you're not really in Vietnam, either.
Now, to the pho ($7 small bowl/$9 large). I liked how the menu has a little primer about it, from how to say it (f-úh) to how to order it. And there's a small glass on the table holding individual ordering sheets and tiny golf pencils inside. For some people who have never had pho, this might be a novel way to introduce them to it, but it won't make them converts. The checklist with an array of ingredients to choose from was great, I love the concept, love it, but unfortunately the noodles were a tad underdone, and the broth wasn't hot enough, which is essential. If you don't get a face steaming with the first few spoonfuls, it won't be so good by the time you get to the bottom of the bowl. I will admit, it's really hard to beat having some pho with a bunch of fellow slurpers hunched over our bowls at my Larkin Street dive. And it was a little challenging to really get into it while sitting on a couch. But that chao tom, yum. I'd totally come back for that.
Enough with the lettuce leaves and dipping sauces and sriracha, to dessert! You could go with the trio of beignets ($8), but the real star of the dessert menu isn't even on it. It ends up there's this wicked chocolate soufflé you can request, and I say do it. It's piping-hot, fluffy, smooth, and looks like a cupcake with a topping of whipped cream. (Sounds like a hot chick, huh!) It also comes with a wading pool of crème anglaise that reminded me of condensed milk, tasty. I think I was on my third cocktail by this time as well, so don't quote me on that.
According to an ad I just saw, they have a new line-up of live music Wed-Sat, starting around 6:30pm or so, and wrapping up by 10pm, which is when the DJs kick in on Friday and Saturday and someone releases the Kraken. But if you're looking for a nice little hideaway mid-week, now you know where to go. And if you want to party like it's 1999, now you know that too.
Le Colonial Lounge
20 Cosmo Place
Cross: Jones St.
San Francisco, CA 94109