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.