Upon reading Patricia Unterman's gushing review of Bodega Bistro in the SF Examiner two weeks ago, we decided it was worth a visit -- mainly to see if this Vietnamese place really deserved the glowing praise heaped upon it, but also to compare its portions and prices vs. the higher-end alternative Slanted Door. The good news is that it surpassed even our heightened expectations.
Located in the "Little Saigon" area of the Tenderloin, roughly bounded by Larkin and Eddy streets, we wandered in around 8:45PM for a late dinner. Our first thoughts were not too promising in terms of atmosphere, as we noticed the window view of a lifeless concrete-walled PG&E substation directly across the street -- "so much for a view", we thought.
The narrowish restaurant has a cozy feel, though, thanks to the warmth radiating from purple and burgundy-painted walls and a black ceiling with directional lamps above almost every table. There are two Louis XIV armoires against one of the walls, but it is pretty sparsely decorated for the most part.
The true standout, though, is really the owner/chef, Jimmy Kwok. He is quite a character and is not shy about going from table to table to ensure that each diner has a wonderful dining experience while under his care. You will quickly notice the amount of care and integrity that he puts into his craft, and it showed in each dish we ordered.
For starters, the Nom (papaya salad with beef jerky in special sauce -- $4.75) featured thinly-sliced papaya, beef jerky, roasted peanuts, and chilis. Mr. Kwok himself came out of the kitchen and gently tossed the assembled ingredients for several minutes, and explained the technique involved in both making and consuming them. It was as if he was actually conducting an orchestra the way he deftly and artistically tossed the melange into its finished product, which was delicious, all the while whilst telling us stories about growing up in Hanoi and life in Vietnam in general.
Next was Chim Quay (roasted squab - $10.95), which was the best roasted squab I have tried in my life -- and I don't even like squab. The skin comes crisp and darkened to perfection, but the bird also is served over golden raisins, onions, and with lettuce. There is also a small dish of pepper/salt to dip into.
The Bo Luc Lac (shaking beef filet mignon -- $7.95) featured large cubes of braised filet mignon served over onions and also with a salt/pepper mixture that was both more flavorful and abundant than the Slanted Door signature version.
Last was the Pho Bodega Dac Biet (rare steak, brisket, flank, tendon and tripe -- $5.95) noodle soup, which was not overly spiced with anise as in many places, and had a chicken/beef broth combination taste to it --very unique and satisfying.
The total bill for the two of us came to around $32 -- note there was no wine consumed during the meal -- and we had left-overs of the beef and soup.
When you go, make sure to sit at a table near the kitchen, and have lots of time to sit and listen to stories of life in Vietnam, how Mr. Kwok has over 24 years of experience as a bar-tender, how he learned to cook from his mother who had several roadside stands in Vietnam, how he has worked for Tommy Toy's and Julius' Castle here in the City, how he now has only one somewhat limited menu that functions for both lunch and dinner, but has plans for a separate (i.e., higher priced) version for dinner, and will have a nice wine list, etc. In fact, it's probably a good idea to dine here before the place gets too popular and he has no choice but to raise prices and expand his successful empire.
This guy has a very bright future, indeed.
607 Larkin Street (at Eddy)
San Francisco, CA
Hours are 7 days a week from 11AM - 10PM