You’ve probably heard: After years of stern wrist slaps, The City’s Department of Sanitation finally delivered Tu Lan a killing blow. The iconic dive was shut down in late July, and barring a highly forgiving appeals board, won’t be allowed to reopen.
It’s no surprise, to me or anyone who visited this Sixth Street funhouse, that Tu Lan wasn’t the cleanest. Still, the violation list was hard to digest: meat festering on countertops, gloveless staffers scratching themselves and prepping food, a skittering menagerie of roaches and mice.
Tu Lan was my first San Francisco Examiner review, and this news left me conflicted. I was grossed out but, perversely, craved a little Vietnamese. All eyes on Kim Son.
In the foggy far reaches of the Outer Richmond district, right before the Avenues spill into the sea, this immaculate spot was an ideal Tu Lan tonic.
I hankered for well-swabbed floors, pristine tabletops, a place where vermin find no purchase. Kim Son sparkled and gleamed.
To be clear: Some of the best low-end eateries have touch-and-go hygiene. But Kim Son proved that clean, cheap and tasty can work in tandem.
I started with well-worn menu territory, ordering up imperial rolls and chicken pho. The rolls were reliably tasty — have I ever disliked these? — with crackly fried shells surrounding a spiced mash of pork, noodles and veggies.
The pho ga was a steadfast rendering, if not particularly inspired. I prefer a murky yellow broth, the result of stewing chicken skin along with bones. This was more like nana’s clear-brothed chicken noodle, assuming she tossed in jalapeño slivers and Thai basil.
The bun rieu soup is a house specialty, with tomato and crab broth swirling around a grocery cart’s worth of goodies: tofu, barbecue pork shreds, shrimp, egg, lettuce, fried shallots and noodles. Pig’s blood is often credited for giving bun rieu its sanguine intensity; at Kim Son, the broth was bloodless and mild.
I was given raw materials for the DIY spring rolls (rice paper, chopped scallions and peanuts, pork meatballs, noodles, assorted produce), then warmly guided through the assembly process. It was 100 times more fun than building an Ikea bookshelf, with a better payoff.
Kim Son’s trophy dish was the com tam suon bi cha (just order No. 25). At its core sat a mound of broken rice, that nutty, scallion-infused peasant staple. Ringing the rice was an awesomely tender grilled pork chop, a heap of shredded pork and pork skin, and a custardlike egg patty studded with pork, crab and black mushrooms.
It played like a deconstructed fried rice dish, accompanied with lettuce, carrots, cucumber, scallions and crispy fried shallots. Combine the various elements, eat them a la carte, add chili paste or sweet fish sauce — there’s room to experiment.
For true excess, fork over a few more bucks to get this same dish with add-ons: a fish cake in a fried soybean wrapper, a shrimp splayed around a piece of sugar cane, three grilled shrimp and an imperial roll. Wanton gluttony? I won’t judge.
One thing you can’t buy is Tu Lan’s ah, atmosphere. Kim Son is a mellow, out-of-the-way spot, with little hubbub or street drama.
Instead of chaotic high jinks, you’re bathed in the genuine warmth of Steve Quach and Sandy Sen, the couple that owns Kim Son. Their smiling eyes haven’t been deadened by the Tenderloin’s unrelenting crush of humanity.
That’s nice too.
Location: 3614 Balboa St. (at 37th Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 221-3811
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays-Sundays
Price range: $6 to $11
Recommended dishes: Imperial rolls ($6), com tam suon bi cha ($6.95), barbecue pork ball spring rolls ($10.95), special seven-item combination rice ($10.95)
Credit cards: All major ($10 minimum)
Reservations: Not accepted