Charles Phan

Vietnam on the Embarcadero
Bill Clinton’s Favorite

Cooking with clay plots

Clay Pots

Even presidents head for Charles Phan’s Slanted Door Restaurant on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.  Or anyway President Bill Clinton had the Vietnamese restaurant on his to-do list on one visit to the city.

Pretty good for a boy from the Central Plains of Vietnam who had fled his country when the Vietcong took over and spent a year and a half as a refugee in Guam

Pretty good, too, for someone who was more interested in architecture or fashion design than running a restaurant.

What puts this place on the must-do list for locals and visitors alike?

The success of the Slanted Door seems almost fluky.  But maybe it wasn’t.  There may be a basic element of artistic sensitivity involved.

Phan left Vietnam in 1978 with his parents and siblings. After a stint in a refugee camp in Guam they arrived in San Francisco. The family eked out a living there.

Phan did get an education, however, in the California school system.  At first he was attracted to a career in fashion design or making pottery.

His father strongly opposed.  So Phan turned to architecture.  But after that field left him bored he dabbled for a while in clothing design.

“I had never seen anyone do that with Asian food before.” — Charles Phan

Finally Phan thought about opening a restaurant to serve Asian food in a thoughtful and fresh way. He liked the way Alice Waters did that with French dishes in Chez Panisse in the East Bay.  ” I had never seen anyone do that with Asian food before,” he said.

“If we could pay the rent for a year, we could make it work.” — Charles Phan

Maxed-Out Plastic: Phan opened the first restaurant version of the Slanted Door in the Mission District using $140,000. He and his relatives got this money together by maxing out their credit cards.  He thought that if “we could pay the rent for a year, we could make it work.”

They did pay the rent.  And they did make it work.

Then after a year he moved to the Embarcadero.

Then as the business grew he moved to a more elegant setting.  The new place was inside the old Ferry Building, still on the Embarcadero.

Phan cooked the same kind of dishes his family had cooked at home.  He kept practicing until they turned out the way he wanted. And this is still the basis of his cooking at the Slanted Door.

Phan’s take on the style and elegance of typical Vietnamese home cooking is what has given the Slanted Door its edge.  His dishes include a lot of things cooked in traditional Vietnamese clay pots.

Cooking Vietnamese, Southeast Asian dishes in clay pots

Clay Pots

Vietnamese use clay pot cooking to intensify and blend the flavors of a wide range of foods —

  • catfish,
  • pork,
  • shrimp,
  • chicken — and even
  • sardines

Phan’s clay pot dishes are intensely flavored, with shallots, garlic and ginger cooked in a sugar and oil mixture.

Using garlic to make Vietnamese soup with pork cabbage rolls

Garlic

Then main ingredients are added. Phan then varies the taste by adjusting the main ingredients or varying the main extra seasonings used —

  • black pepper
  • chili
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • fish sauce.
Pomelo or Shaddock fruit

Pomelo

Phan often serves clay pot dishes with a Grapefruit and Jicama Salad.  Recipes for Pork Clay Pot and Grapefruit and Jicama Salad are available online. You could download these and try them to see how you like his style. [1]

Phan makes Banh Mi, the classic French Vietnamese Fusion dish, a kind f sandwich served on pieces of French bread or toasted Baguette, sometimes using Grilled Pork Meatballs with Tomato Sauce as the main filling.

Other Phan recipes for Lemongrass Chicken and Roasted Chili Paste are also available online. These are also worth checking out and to get a deeper feel for his approach. ]2]

Phan’s recent cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking, reveals more of his secrets.  If you want to expand your stock of Vietnamese dishes, try Phan’s simple, basic home cooking.  Flavors are intense and clear, detailed explanations of ingredients and methods are revealed.  Details are attached. [3, 4]

For further information:

[1] Mark Bittman, “The Chef/Charles Phan: The Flavors of Vietnam, Captured in a Pot,” The New York Times, August 7, 2004 —
[2] “Lemongrass: Vietnamese cuisine’s not-so-secret ingredients,” The Week, October 12, 2012, p. 28.  Recipes for Lemongrass Chicken and Roasted Chili Paste —
[3] “Phan Club,” Saveur, November 2012, p. 27 — brief review of Vietnamese Home Cooking
[4] For related topics see articles on Lemongrass, Clay Pots and Vietnamese Cuisine in this site.

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2 thoughts on “Charles Phan

  1. Pingback: LLemongrass, Southeast Asiian cuisine's secret ingredient | Pacific Rim Gourmet

  2. Pingback: Clay pots and cooking - flavors captured in a pot | Pacific Rim Gourmet

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