Charles Phan, the chef and owner of the Slanted Door in San Francisco, is shopping at the Marina Safeway with his three children—Pana, 3, who takes the place of honor in her father's arms, Panu, 5, the only boy, and Nati, 6, who views her job as eldest with a serene but stern seriousness. "Are these yours?" I asked Phan when we first met. "No, I rented them," he answered, deadpan.
Some say the Slanted Door is the best Vietnamese restaurant in the United States, thanks in no small part to Phan's understanding of the American palate and his love of the warm and peppery flavors of Southeast Asia. He buys organic vegetables and meats from local farmers and usually picks up bean curd, pickled vegetables, oils and soy sauces in Chinatown—not at Safeway. But the 43-year-old chef came to the supermarket today to assess the degree to which Asian flavors have permeated America since he opened the Slanted Door in the Mission in 1995. (The restaurant recently moved to become an anchor in the new Ferry Building Marketplace on the Embarcadero.)
With kids dripping from his arms and legs, Phan begins his Safeway tour of Asia with the obvious. "Lemongrass—they never would have had that here 10 years ago. Taro root. I boil that for dessert, you know, and make fried chips." He picks up a yuca root, which looks like a yam's ugly stepchild, but before he can comment, Panu chimes in. "Yucky," he says, chuckling at his pun. Phan lets Panu know his opinion has been heard, then sees something—it resembles a pale, bumpy cucumber—that excites him. "Bitter melon. I put it in soup. It's superbitter!"