I have been sampling the new restaurants in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill’s restaurant district, while continuing to frequent the anchor, the venerable Goat Hill Pizza. To recap, across Connecticut Street on 18th Street is a Rocketfish, a sushi bar and cocktail lounge that is in denial about being a Japanese restaurant. A few doors further east is Pera, a new Turkish restaurant that I think is excellent.
Back at the corner of 18th and Connecticut, across 18th Street from Goat Hill Pizza to the north (288 Connecticut) is Sunflower. As with Rocketfish, I do not understand the popularity of Sunflower. It does not take reservations and frequently has people waiting in the street. But, why?
Many San Franciscans, especially ones between the ages of 20 and 60, fancy themselves gourmands, discerning about multiple cuisines. Their voting with their feet often puzzles me. In the Richmond District, Burma Star is more popular than the better Burmese restaurant, Mandalay.
The Vietnamese restaurant, Slanted Door, formerly in the Mission District, now in the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, has always been wildly popular, though not in my opinion particularly good. In the restaurant district of my neighborhood, Potrero Hill, I can understand waiting for a table at the tiny Chez Papa Bistrot, though I don’t understand the “t” affixed to “bistro,” since it would not be pronounced in French. It is easy for the new “Mexican with a French accent” restaurant, Papito, to look popular, since it also has few tables and is new enough that it is being checked out.
I would not label the staff of Sunflower “unfriendly,” and would credit them as “attentive,” but would not call them “friendly.” They were good at keeping water glasses full, but we had to ask for a spoon (for the peanut sauce served with the imperial rolls) and had to ask for clean plates to replace the ones that were wet from the fish sauce we poured into the crêpes.
The sauce for the Imperial Rolls ($6.95) was notably salty, and in general, the dishes were more salted than I am used to in Southeast Asian restaurants. The rolls were thicker than others, but I could not distinguish the taste of any Vietnamese restaurant’s imperial rolls from any other Vietnamese restaurant.
The Vegetarian Crêpe, a fried concoction of bean sprouts that diners wrap in Romaine lettuce leaves with shredded carrots and mint leaves ($8.95), was served without pickled onions. Perhaps I could have asked for them. (The owner of the much better Vietnamese restaurant on Mission Street just south of Valencia, Lotus Garden, told me that most customers left the onions on the serving plate… another count in my indictment of our self-styled food connoisseurs!) In some Vietnamese restaurants, there are only three Romaine leaves, but Sunflower’s crêpe came with four, so each of us had one.
Of the three entrées we ordered, the best was a Vietnamese standard, Five-Spice Roasted Chicken ($9.25): boned thigh meat marinated in 5-spice, served on a Romaine lettuce leaf with pieces of raw tomato on the side, and a bowl of the standard vinegar-based sauce. I thought that the pieces could have been cut all the way through, but there was a knife so that we could finish the job begun in the kitchen.
The worst was Spicy Calamari ($11.95). When it arrived, all I saw was red and green bell peppers and celery, my nightmare ultra-cheap Cantonese restaurant fare. I asked myself , “Where is the calamari?” and one of my dining companions soon said the same thing out loud. There were some big pieces of calamari. “Big” is not a positive descriptor when it comes to pieces of squid, or, indeed, to the calamari served. This was the most disappointing dish I have had in a Southeast Asian restaurant in living memory. Filling the plate with the cheapest available vegetables is something that should be left to cheap Cantonese restaurants!
In-between in quality was the Shaken Beef ($11.95). I was disappointed that the menu did not include Beef in La Lot Leaves, my favorite Vietnamese beef dish. According to the menu, Shaken Beef is “a favorite: tender beef cubes in our garlic and chili sauce.” I did not taste garlic at all and the cubes were not notably tender. I would guess they were chuck steak. They did not seem to be tenderized with MSG, since I did not have the post-meal thirst that MSG triggers. (I did drink three full glasses of water during the meal, however.) Although not as sweet as too many dishes in too many American Thai restaurants, there was too much sugar glazing the beef cubes for my taste.
I could taste garlic in the Garlic Noodles ($7.95) that we had instead of rice. I thought they were greasier than they should have been.
There were not bottles of Sriracha (the chili sauce some of my friends call “Red Dye Number Four”) on the tables or other condiments (sliced, pickled jalapeños is another standard).
The serving plates and portions are large and I like the pounded copper table tops, but it’s back to Lotus Garden the next time I want Vietnamese food. Or Turtle Tower (on Larkin between Eddy and Ellis) for North Vietnamese food or Pagolac (also between Eddy and Ellis and Larkin) for beef seven ways.