This is a piece in progress for when I do a Bay Area roundup on my blog. Bear in mind I'm stating some things that will be obvious to Bay Area readers, but I have a largely New York readership...
A fairly new Vietnamese restaurant I had heard a lot about and was eager to try is Bodega Bistro, in the Little Saigon enclave of San Francisco's tenderloin (the Vietnamese influx adding some family stability to this traditionally seedy neighborhood). There are some excellent restaurants on the stretch of Larkin Street between roughly Eddy and O'Farrell. Pagolac is perhaps the best of the more traditional Vietnamese places. But Vietnamese food is also a true, non-contrived fusion cuisine, drawing on the long history of French colonial culinary influence. In Vietnam pate, yogurt, and Laughing Cow cheese are ubiquitous, for instance. Bodega Bistro is a place that capitalizes on the French side, offering some more "modern" Eurasian-fusion-type dishes in addition to its Hanoi-style cuisine (this itself something of a novelty since most U.S. Vietnamese restaurants are based in Saigon styles). The name it self is a pun, as each of the syllables in bodega represents a different type of meat in Vietnamese: bo (beef), de (lamb), and ga (chicken).
My schedule only allowed for a solo lunch, so I couldn't try as many dishes as I'd have liked, but the two things I did try were winners. Nom is a shredded green papaya salad with "beef jerky" (small pieces of dried beef) and peanuts, in a lime and herb dressing. It was refreshing, with complex flavors. I also ordered the flounder filet, served on a sizzling platter with a side plate of lettuce and herbs for rolling the filets into finger food, rolling food in lettuce being a favorite Vietnamese pastime. Bodega Bistro served little Boston lettuce cups, as opposed to the Romaine leaves I'm used to. Accoutrements included two aromatic leaves: the somewhat soapy herb I know as shiso in Japanese cuisine, and another, even more soapy leaf whose name I don't know, and which I've only been served in Vietnamese restaurants. I do not like the latter leaf. Then there was the enormous pile of cold bun (rice vermicelli), which one rolls in the lettuce along with the fish.
The fish was lightly breaded with what was probably a thin egg & flour batter, providing a subtle crispness that kept the fish wonderfully moist. It was sauteed with dill, onions, shallots and peanuts, the dill being the real surprise. I don't know if dill is a common herb in Hanoi-style cooking, but I had never had it in Vietnamese food before. It worked wonderfully, and got along quite well with the other ingredients. Two sauces were served with the dish: one made with savory fermented shrimp-paste and the other a slightly sweetened fish sauce. I alternated the sauces as I ate my lettuce-fish rolls.
Bodega Bistro's refined take on Vietnamese food seems for the most part utterly earthy and authentic. The restaurant may ultimately give the Slanted Door a run for its money among people who care more about food than buzz. The Slanted Door, by the way, is a real darling among Bay Area foodies. They serve a very good, but not THAT great nouvelle version of Vietnamese cuisine, and I frankly never understood what all the fuss was about.