Pin It

In the House 

Jasmine House

Wednesday, May 9 2001
Comments
Once upon a time, I played what you might call a dual role at this newspaper, penning the occasional news story along with the occasional restaurant review. I suppose I was more qualified to do the former, having worked for two years as a reporter at a tiny newspaper in the East Bay. But as I told the people who kept asking how one gets started as a food critic, I'd been eating since the day I was born. So I did both, covering citizen groups' efforts to revitalize the Tenderloin, then heading up to the Fairmont to drop a C-note on brunch for two. Occasionally this split led to odd moments, such as the time I was strolling through the TL following a meeting on a proposed homeless shelter and heard a voice call out from behind me. It was my friend Richard (loosely involved in the issue), with one of those have-I-got-a-tip-for-you looks on his face. Ever diligent, I whipped out my notebook, and learned that I absolutely had to check out this new lunch place he'd been eating at (Stix Roadhouse), where the hamburgers were as big as Cadillacs and the salads were pretty good, too.

Looking back, that day may have been a crossroads for me, because since then I've written two news pieces and around 70 restaurant reviews. As with reporting, tips help, but unlike reporting, they're generally rewarded with an invitation to dinner. Richard has a taste for smaller, out-of-the-way places, so we've dined on soul-shattering imperial rolls and other Vietnamese delights at Turk Street's Phong Lan, then a sumptuous, 17-course Chinese feast at Taraval Street's Eight Immortals. Lately he's been on the Vietnamese kick again -- always a good kick to be on -- and his most recent tip took us to the outer reaches of Clement Street to a cozy little spot known as Jasmine House.

In my experience, suggestions from friends have always panned out, so I starved myself before my dinner with Richard. As I toured the Outer Richmond's abundance of not-quite-large-enough parking spots, I was hungry enough to eat a bee. I passed Jasmine House at least six times (look for the crab on the sign, an international symbol of delectability) before locating a suitable curb, then found Richard and his friend Nicholas sipping Vietnamese '33 beer among a quiet Thursday night crowd of half a dozen. The place was a few shades more elegant than your average pho house: Strands of Christmas lights dangled from the ceiling like vines of ivy, and white tablecloths looked immaculate under glass. Soothing, Sade-esque soul tunes flowed from the sound system. The walls bore not one but two prints of Renoir's Le Déjeuner des Canotiers -- one with a dark border and a dark frame, one with a light border and a dark frame (and if Jasmine House would like a copy with a gold frame, I have an extra). Our waitress was a bit too blonde to be Vietnamese, but then again, so am I.

Since Richard and Nicholas appeared equally famished, we ordered 10 courses from Jasmine House's extensive selection of traditional Vietnamese dishes. First to hit the table: an exquisite, sweet-hot marinade brushed onto rubbery, undercooked sheets of grilled squid as toothsome as slabs of boiled neoprene. "Oh shit," I thought, "Richard screwed me!" I wondered how many tips I'd get from him after savaging his latest choice, then braced myself for a long night. Fortunately, the squid was a fluke, and the rest of our meal combined sharp, bright flavors with the wonderful juxtaposition of textures and temperatures that come to my mind when I contemplate the foods of Vietnam.

History and geography shape cuisines, and in the case of Vietnam, 1,000 years of Chinese occupation (hence the stir-fry, among other things) meet the Portuguese introduction of hot chilies, techniques from the French, and an abundance of rice, vegetables, fruits, and seafood. Throw in the pre-Chinese tradition of wrapping food in fresh lettuce and you get the miraculous complexity of our Vietnamese crepe. In that dish, a crisp skin of rice flour came stuffed with shredded pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts; we wrapped the whole thing in cool sheets of lettuce with sprigs of mint and slices of cucumber, then punctuated it with tangy fish sauce spiked with chili and lime.

Our next two appetizers riffed on similar themes. The Jasmine House beef special consisted of thin slices of beef sautéed in a flavorful, spicy brown sauce, then rolled in paper-thin sheets of rice paper with mint and fish sauce. Banh hoi chao tom translated as minced shrimp wrapped around chunks of sugar cane, then grilled, the cane exuding a light, sweet juice when chewed, the shrimp taking smashingly to a side of rice noodles, rice paper, mint, and a savory, peanut-studded mung bean sauce. Next came a traditional Vietnamese salad -- goi ga -- perhaps the finest antidote ever devised for sweltering afternoons. Jasmine House tosses thin slices of red and green cabbage with onions, carrot, mint, and crushed peanut -- a perfect backdrop for cool, clean-tasting shreds of steamed chicken breast and a pungent dose of rau ram (Vietnamese cilantro). Our hot and sour soup struck with equal precision at the opposite end of the temperature spectrum, combining bean sprouts, pineapple, catfish, and spongy green slices of taro stalk with a razor-sharp chili-tamarind broth.

Richard insisted we order garlic noodles -- luscious strands of egg noodle sautéed with butter, garlic, and a dash of Parmesan cheese (Jasmine House's own invention). Naturally, the noodles called for a whole, roasted crab, triggering a messy ritual that involved crab crackers, metal probes, and an addictive search for bits of sweet Dungeness that simply had to take a dip in a buttery garlic-pepper sauce. Richard's other choice, catfish in a clay pot, provided my favorite taste of the night: succulent chunks of fish simmered in an intense fish sauce-based gravy redolent of cilantro. Our final entree -- cubes of tender beef stir-fried with tomato, onion, pepper, and garlic, known as bo luc lac (shaking beef) -- held its own compared to most versions, and was livened up with a side of lemon juice laced with salt and pepper.

At the beginning of our meal, I figured I'd take home at least three to-go boxes, so the greatest tribute to Jasmine House may be that though the portions were large the three of us finished every last scrap -- and still had an appetite for dessert. Bananas are always excellent but are even more so when fried; ours came enveloped in a chewy yet crisp skin, the flesh warm, sweet, and full of flavor. The final taste of the night was the funkiest: pockets of sweet red and yellow beans served in a fountain glass with coconut milk and noodlelike shreds of green gelatin, topped with coconut ice cream to form a sort of Vietnamese sundae. I'd order it again, but only if Jasmine House was out of fried bananas. Incredibly, I still didn't feel full, but as we stood to leave the food shifted a bit, and I got an idea of what it's like to be 10 months pregnant. It might be a bad feeling after, say, a Las Vegas buffet, but it was quite wonderful following the many delights of Jasmine House.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed