On my first visit to the Slanted Door sixteen years ago, then on a fairly scruffy block of Valencia in the Mission by now closed Bombay Bazaar, I fell hard for the Charles Phan experience. I had slurped noodles at hole in the wall pho joints and wolfed down the best sandwiches in the world at banh mi shops in the Tenderloin. I had driven to excellent if utilitarian Vietnamese restaurants with extensive menus in Newark and San Jose where the largest Vietnamese community in the Bay Area lives. But the Slanted Door was something else, a Vietnamese restaurant that assimilated what was happening on the culinary and cultural front in San Francisco, and raised the bar.
Slanted Door’s converted storefront dining room felt both smart and hand built, with colorfully painted wooden tables and tony chairs with wicker seats, contemporary art on the walls, good flowers, an open kitchen. The tables upstairs in the quieter mezzanine, covered with white linen and butcher paper, hinted at luxe. Phan, a ceramicist and student of architecture, drew on a community of artists and artisans he knew to build and outfit the place, but he did a lot of it himself. He was driven by a vision and a small budget, so he worked on every detail, not the least of which was simple Asian ceramics that somehow made every dish seem new and exciting.
His cooking was vibrant, seemingly more alive than any I’d eaten in other Vietnamese restaurants. Following the lead of Chez Panisse, Phan committed his kitchen to fresh, carefully chosen ingredients, just as a dedicated home cook would, and since he had never cooked professionally, he made everything from scratch. In 1995 when the Slanted Door opened, Hmong and Vietnamese farmers were starting to grow vegetables and herbs for the ethnic kitchen and selling them at farmers’ markets where Phan shopped. He also was seduced by Western vegetables and prepared them with Vietnamese herbs, a breakthrough. Phan adored fresh produce, especially after two vegetable deprived years living in Guam as a refugee.
In keeping with his hunger for excellent ingredients, Phan sought out small farm-raised chicken, pork and beef to use in traditional preparations. His sister Kim Phan used seasonal fruits in desserts that reflect the French influence on Vietnamese cooking: blackberry napoleons, French chocolate cake a la Zuni Cafe and creme caramel, along with house made tropical ice creams.
The Slanted Door’s wine list proved to be another Phan brainstorm. He found Mark Ellenbogen by chance at a wine tasting at Greens. The ensuing working partnership launched both of them in wine circles. Ellenbogen was predisposed to Italian wines, but quickly discovered that crisp and off dry floral Austrian whites and light, spicy reds danced with Vietnamese flavors. Ellenbogen’s one page list with emphasis on whites organized wines by their character: “ white, crisp and dry”; “floral and soft”; “aromatic and rich”. He was the first, as I recall, to write a list this way, a gift to both Slanted Door’s customers and wait staff who had been at sea when it came to selecting compatible bottles. At Slanted Door, wine became part of the Vietnamese experience, another first.
Phan’s love of fine teas meant that they, too, got nuanced treatment. Presented looseleaf in a warmed pot with tiny cups and a sand timer, customers had to pay attention. Like the wine list, the tea list described provenance and character of each tea. Many cost more than wine, unheard of in any restaurant at the time.
Word of this sophisticated, San Francisco-style Vietnamese restaurant spread like wildfire throughout Bay Area food circles. Lines started forming outside the door at 5 p.m. and didn’t let up until closing. The Slanted Door did three turns at night, right from the start. With 100 seats–how could there have been that many–the place grossed almost $4 million, even with relatively low menu prices. Every food crazed San Franciscan and food savvy tourist wanted to and could afford to eat there.
The charmed Mission location could have continued forever, if a disgruntled customer, upset because the restaurant wouldn’t take reservations, had not complained to the city about Slanted Door’s oversized mezzanine. So after seven years on Valencia, the restaurant had to move in order to bring the space up to code.
Phan found a temporary location on the Embarcadero at Brannan, which had housed a number of restaurants, the latest of which, Wild Fire, left behind a wood burning oven, a mesquite grill and a comparatively huge open kitchen. Despite whisperings that the spot was jinxed, the SOMA/Embarcadero Slanted Door turned out to be a hit and gave Phan the opportunity to play around with new dishes: oven roasted Coke Farm beets with rau ram and crispy shallots; grilled Niman Ranch rack of lamb; wood oven roasted Alaskan halibut with spicy ginger fish sauce. The new Slanted Door had a view of the Bay Bridge, stayed open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, took reservations and had a full bar, which was provisioned with the same eye to quality and artisanship as the pantry, the wine room and the tea locker. It stocked small batch Pappy Van Winkle bourbon in the barrel as well booze!
In 2002, before the Ferry Building renovation and the Giants bayside ball park was built, waterfront restaurants were no home run, except at Fisherman’s Wharf. But the Slanted Door thrived in its big new location and Phan wanted to stay, especially since repairs hadn’t been completed on Valencia street. He thought he had worked out a lease extension at Brannan, but the deal fell through at the last minute. Concurrently, the developers of the Ferry Building desperately wanted the Slanted Door as an anchor tenant. Phan, annoyed with the landlord on Brannan street, picked up the phone, told the developers he would take 10,000 square feet, cited the terms and conditions and hung up. They were smart enough to accept, on the spot. Then, of course, Phan had to raise the money for the build out fast, the estimated cost of which rose by over a million dollars. His friends and customers came through, lending on his signature alone. He built the new restaurant in a record ten months.
In June, 2004, the ultimate Slanted Door opened in a cavernous, echoing, empty building. Developers Chris and Michelle Meany had also convinced the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ market to move its Saturday market there from a parking lot up the Embarcadero. Not a few predicted that these two San Francisco institutions might be doomed by the move. But the opposite happened. The credibility of the farmers’ market validated the eventual indoor market hall and the Slanted Door drew thousands of diners to the building. Now Phan only had to walk a few yards to shop.
The Slanted Door had morphed into a 225 seat restaurant right on the water with sweeping views, a huge bar, a cocktail lounge, a custom built kitchen and a light filled Ole Lundberg designed dining room. It grossed $10 million in its first year, about $4 million over projections. After getting it open, Phan’s biggest challenge was scaling up volume while keeping the food straightforward, affordable and true to his original vision, the one that started the Mission district hole in the wall. The Slanted Door currently pulls in $17.5 million a year, the highest grossing independent restaurant in the country.
The truth is that this Slanted Door remains a direct reflection of Phan’s personal history, a life that began in Dalat, a city in the south central highlands of Vietnam, where his mother owned a store with 14 employees and his father invested in coffee plantations. On April 30, 1975, when he was 13, the unthinkable happened. South Vietnam fell in 52 days. Phan still carries the scary, chaotic images of his society collapsing around him and his family’s desperate struggle to find a place on a departing cargo ship. Leaving everything behind, they were dropped off in Guam with 400,000 other refugees.
Two years later his extended family of 14 were living in a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. They moved to Chinatown and Phan went to work as a child janitor, a bar back, a dishwasher, taking any menial job he could find to earn money to help the family. While his parents worked, he cooked for his brothers and sisters. He learned English. He went to Mission High, a diverse, inner city high school. Phan was never a good student but he had a talent for ceramics and working with his hands. He got into the art department at UC Berkeley by attending Summerbridge during the summers to raise his grades.
Ironically, it was at Cal that he first encountered cultural racism. He saw that students expected all Asian restaurants to be cheap, undesigned and without amenities, and realized that there was a niche in the restaurant market. No place he could find reflected his own identity, his own taste, his own aspirations. Using every skill he had learned as a scrambling refugee, a teenage home cook, a self taught fix-it guy and contractor, an architecture student intrigued with scale, light, design and esthetics, he mounted his first Slanted Door, and then the second and now the third, never losing his soul along the way. I could describe the Slanted Door today just the way I did in 1996–a place that catapulted honest, ethnic Vietnamese cooking into the forefront of the contemporary restaurant world by incorporating great ingredients, design and personal vision. I still go for the most luscious fried chicken, raw beef salad, and farmers’ market vegetables with Vietnamese herbs. And I am still filled with wonder and delight at being there.