Chicken porridge (chao).
Brisket, eggs, and potatoes.
Artic char, watercress, persimmon.
As my friend and I were inhaling—truly, with our noses, and not (yet) scarfing—the winter melon soup at the latest ~OUT THE DOOR~ on Bush Street, I realized I had found an equally strong contender for “the dish I want when I’m sick,” almost nudging pho ga from Turtle Tower off its previously unchallenged pedestal.
The soup had a deep chicken-y flavor (those of you who are fans of Charles Phan’s pho ga know this broth well), feisty and frisky with pepper and cilantro, plus added richness from egg that was whisked in, just like an egg drop soup. $5 for a bowl of instant wellness.
Flash forward to a foggy morning, when I’m meeting a friend for a midweek breakfast after a late night (whoops, how did that happen, again?). The famed pho ($9) was boldly staring me in the eye, but the chicken porridge ($8) is what got my order. It’s simultaneously simple yet so rich: the rice is cooked in chicken water and fish sauce, with plenty of ginger, but chef de cuisine Grace Nguyen adds more chicken fat to it for good measure. Nice stroke. And plunked on top are slices of fried Chinese donut, spongy and almost eggy in texture, plus crisp fried shallots, and fragrant and bracing fresh shreds of rau ram, otherwise known as Vietnamese coriander. It’s the kind of dish you just want to curl up in, the snuggly sweater of breakfast.
Meanwhile, my friend was communing with the cult dish of Niman Ranch beef brisket ($13) topped with silky slow-poached eggs (thank you, immersion circulator, for these perfectly cooked eggs—and they’re wonderful eggs indeed, free-range little numbers from RedHill Farms) and crispy chunks of potato. Move over steak and eggs: here’s a somewhat deconstructed hash that totally sings with flavor. And wait until you dip the fresh-baked mini baguette into the dark sauce and bright yolk—it almost feels illegal.
Somehow, somehow, we managed room for the beignets (covered in a cloud of powdered sugar that Pablo Escobar would approve of) and Vietnamese coffee ($6) at the end. And this is where the Pac Heights zip code really sinks in… You’re definitely not in a Little Saigon joint, because the coffee comes to you already prepared in a Heath mug—no metal coffee contraption for you.
I like having a place that isn’t downtown where you can go for a breakfast meeting, but isn’t a dingy little café either. Breakfast meetings—they’re the new lunch. Although this place is also a perfect lunch spot. OTD is additionally open during that awkward post-lunch and pre-dinner time, serving a menu of snacks like rolls, salads, and soups in case you’re peckish at 3pm.
The stylish look is industrial-natural (to be expected from Olle Lundberg of Lundberg Design, who does all of Phan’s locations): pine slat walls, black slate floors, custom bent-steel banquettes along the wall (a bit chilly for the bum on a cold night), marble tables, two long dining counters (one overlooking a large open kitchen), mid-century modern chairs, and a baker’s table used as a communal table in the front. The long counters make it ideal for single diners, and the place draws families on the early side while groups of ladies dining out together pile in on the later side, plus it’s reportedly a popular spot for first dates (I can see why—it’s informal but just nice enough).
The dinner menu is full of many of the established “Phan favorites” (spring rolls, daikon rice cake, chicken claypot, cellophane noodles and crab, and yes, the shaking beef), but diners willing to break the routine are richly rewarded. Nguyen’s background includes Postrio and working for Wolfgang Puck in Vegas, but she’s been with Phan since 2007, so she knows the rules enough to break them, or at least improvise on them.
She plays with tradition by grilling pork meatballs ($8) in a metal grill basket—good flavor, but unfortunately the meatballs were tough. What actually caught my attention was the accompanying spicy and thick pineapple-anchovy sauce, which had that spicy-salty-tangy-sweet interplay I love so much about Vietnamese cooking.
Another sauce that demanded attention was the ginger-chili sauce that came with the sautéed Artic char ($16). Nguyen said she added more lime than what’s traditionally used in the sauce and liked it so much that she was inspired to cut the char into dunk-able chops for guests. Bingo. The dish also came with rugged watercress and sweet slices of persimmon, another flavor balancing act that helped cut through the fattiness of the fish.
We also had the banh nam ($7), a silky rice cake in banana leaf that was like a Vietnamese tamale, with ground shrimp and pork inside. It veers on a bit spendy for street food, but I’ll let your pocketbook be the judge.
My favorite of the evening was the duck ($25), a half portion of that blessed bird that Nguyen steams and then puts on the rotisserie (yup). The skin has that decadent crackly texture you want with duck, containing such juicy flesh inside. The side players of roasted red grapes on the vine and tender upland cress kept my fork returning to the plate, long after I was full. The menu changes often; Nguyen mentioned now she’s doing a lamb dish instead of the duck (sorry if I got you excited—let’s hope it flies back soon).
But save room for Chucky Dugo’s desserts, you must: the bright Thai basil ice cream (all desserts $6) has become a dish they can’t take off the menu, and I also thought the red kabocha cake with caramelized pineapple was right at home at the end of the meal.
The wine list features quite an extensive wine-on-tap program, which keeps the by-the- glass prices in a good “quality for the price” zone (you can also get half glasses). (Here’s more on the wine-on-tap program.) Back when Slanted Door was on Valencia in the mid-90s, I remember it was the first time I ever had a Saison ale, let alone drank a beer that wasn’t in a 12 oz. bottle, or, heh, a can. Wine director Gus Vahlkamp doesn’t forget how wonderful Vietnamese food pairs with beer, as the list of 13 selections attests. In fact, the vibe reminds me a lot of the original Slanted Door; it’s relaxed, a bit funky, lively, and wow, look at that, the place is full of locals.