Wednesday, February 6, 2008
I Heart Tu Lan
To say I've eaten at Tu Lan hundreds of times would not be an exaggeration.
I've been eating there for about fifteen years. For about six years, I worked nearby, and went there once or twice a week.
During all the time I've known Tu Lan, a debate has been raging. Is Tu Lan a disgusting, grease-covered place, where cockroaches climb the walls and irascible cooks buy stolen goods from crack addicts? Or is it an incomparable cheap-eats find, with a certain reverse, Sixth Street cache for those in the know? Such is the debate, but I long ago lost all objectivity, and cannot answer that question. The flavorful, abundant and somewhat greasy Vietnamese food is like Proust's Madeleine to me, full of comfort, memories and associations. I was rather pleased to see that, on Tu Lan's last inspection by the health department, they received a score of 86, which is really quite respectable.
Tu Lan is a loud, narrow, old-fashioned place with dingy white walls and an open kitchen. If you sit at the counter you can watch the cooks make each dish, a process that involves a lot of leaping flames, tongs and clattering pans. The cooks don't look happy and they sweat a lot. On a number of occasions, I have indeed seen them examining goods for sale by residents of the local single room occupancy hotels. Once, a cook shouted at me after I complained that my shrimp salad had onions on it, when I requested it without. He angrily claimed that I had made the same complaint last week, which I denied vehemently (I hadn't).
Another time, I saw a man who was being pursued by the police jump from a crawlspace above the dining area into the middle of the restaurant and escape out the front door. It was truly like being in an action movie.
Though the male:female ratio at Tu Lan is usually about 3:1, I've never felt the least bit unsafe or uncomfortable there. The place is a veritable melting pot of San Francisco society from the poorest street person to the upper middle class. Many of the items on Tu Lan's menu still cost less than five dollars. And the servers have a gruff kindness about them, especially my favorite, a stooped man with a mustache who has called me "sir" many times.
And of all the enterprises I've ever been associated with, Tu Lan has the lowest turnover rate. Last night, 90% of the staff had been working there for at least eight years. Most had been there since I started going to Tu Lan. They've gotten older right along with me.
Lastly, I recommend the shrimp-fried rice, the ginger fish (pictured above), the tofu salad, the bean cake with crispy noodles, and the spring rolls. Don't get the soup.
Thanks to mswine, tempo and vanderwal for their excellent flickr commons photos.