The Chairman needs no introduction. A staple of the Bay Area food truck scene for years, its bright red panda logo is nearly as recognizable as the Giants’ orange SF — OK, maybe not to some people, but definitely to me and my fellow food-obsessed. As much as I love their buns, though, and it’s a lot (please feel free to insert your own “bun”-related jokes here), it’s kind of a pain to track their truck all over town whenever a bao craving strikes.
That’s why I squealed with glee when I discovered their new brick-and-mortar operation in the Tenderloin. Located on a stretch of Larkin Street literally dominated by Vietnamese restaurants, the nomadic bright red panda has found a permanent home.
Like the food truck, the restaurant is fast-casual with counter service. Stools surround the walls for those who are dining in, but most people seem to get take-out. Many of the truck’s old favorites are here — with a few omissions — and there are plenty of new items to dive into.
The baos come in two forms: on a large baked bun, similar to a hamburger, or on a smaller steamed clamshell bun, like a fluffy taco.
The braised beef short rib bao on a baked bun, which carries the heftiest price tag (but is still a pretty affordable dish by San Francisco standards), looks like a typical sandwich you might get at a barbecue joint: mounds of shredded meat topped with goopy slaw under a golden-brown dome of bread. But smell it, bite into it, and it’s anything but typical. Savory braised beef, the manly yet tender anchor that holds the bun together, is paired with its eternal soul mate: horseradish, here in the form of zippy mayo. Beef and horseradish — always a good idea. But it’s the crunchy, herbaceous fennel slaw and the mellow Japanese curry that push this bao over the top. The balance of warm and cool sensations, flavors bright and punchy, soft and deep, and the exhilarating contrast of textures made this bao my new favorite.
The noodle salad is a funhouse of flavors, and the biggest, boldest new dish on the menu. In fact, two of us sharing it couldn’t even get close to the bottom of the bowl. Purple potato noodles provide a chewy, hearty base for elements like meaty marinated mushrooms and burdock root pickled with chili. A puree of toasted sesame serves as the dressing, and then optional ingredients abound. I went with Coca-Cola braised pork, an organic fried egg and crispy shallots; it proved to be an explosively killer combination. The crispy ends of pork — dampened with silky egg yolk, brightened with crunchy daikon sprouts and hit with zing and heat from the chili pickle — had me muttering in awe as each nuance of acid and umami hit my palate.
The twice-fried chicken wings are sticky fun, with a pop of yuzu citrus and a kiss of chili heat. Though I’m not even remotely a vegan, I dug the crispy tempeh bao’s meatless meatiness and its bright, funky carrot and seaweed vibe.
The Chairman Truck is still out there, slinging baos around town, but it’s sure nice to know the panda will always be here for me when I need my fix.
Location: 670 Larkin St,, S.F.
Contact: (415) 813-8800, www.thechairmantruck.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays
Recommended dishes: Braised beef short rib bao ($5.75/$10.50), noodle salad ($9), 2X fried chicken wings ($8/$10), Coca-Cola braised pork bao ($3.75/$6.75), crispy tempeh bao ($3.25/$6.25), tender pork belly bao ($3.75/$6.75)
Price range: $3.25 to $10.50
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major