By Mollie McWilliams
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Joseph Geha
By Anna Roth
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.
Chicken salad $6.95
Hot and sour soup $8.95
Garlic noodles $5.95
Roasted crabmarket price
Catfish in clay pot $9.50
Fried banana $3.95
Open for dinner every night from 5 to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday), for lunch on weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Noise level: low to moderate
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.
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