Tu Lan is pretty controversial in this board: there's no denying it's a greasy dive in a lousy neighborhood, but people disagree about whether or not the food justifies the significant ick factor of of the rest of the experience.
Melanie Wong and I have been on the "no" side of that argument, despite the fact that neither of us had actually eaten there. At the suggestion of rworange, we met with her and Celery at Tu Lan for lunch today to finally earn the right to say "don't go" from first-hand experience.
In order to give it a fair shake, we researched this board and other sources to come up with a list of dishes that would let Tu Lan shine. In the end, we ordered:
#17 Pork Kebab with Imperial roll over rice noodles (bun cha gio thit nuong)
#45 Beef cubes with VN style [sic], aka "shaking beef" (bo luc lac)
#22 VN style Pork or Chicken fried rice (we got the chicken) (com chein thit)
#60 Fried fish in ginger sauce (ca chien gung)
#77 "Ten things (meat, seafood) mixed up in the pot" (lau thap cam)
First things first: it really is a greasy, dirty (tiny) dive. The block isn't too scary at noon, but isn't exactly appetizing, either. The service was brusque (very little English spoken), but very efficient. When our server (an elderly man) realized how much food we were ordering he looked extremely dubious and asked us to verify our order several times. In fact, we probably only ate about half of the food we got. (We had the leftovers packed to go and left them where they could make a homeless person very happy.)
Okay, the food. Having tried it, I can now see the appeal of the place: the food was for the most part tasty, if not very subtle. That can be a good thing when talking about the marinade in the meats or the generous amounts of ginger in the Imperial rolls, but not in some other dishes, where the flavor was boosted by copious amounts of MSG. The main culprits were the fried rice, yellow from the addition of chicken stock base -- which gave it a very intense chicken flavor, but also imparted loads of MSG; and the ten things in the pot, a soup that came in a hot pot with sterno, and was also loaded with MSG (probably the broth). In fact, I actually thought I could *smell* the MSG in the steam. Does MSG have a smell?
The Imperial rolls were everything they were cracked up to be, at least, if you love ginger, pork and crisp fried stuff (and really, who doesn't?). The ground pork filling was juicy and flavorful, and the roll itself was huge -- easily more than twice as big as the typical Imperial roll. I think the rolls here are to Imperial rolls what Joe's Shanghai in NY is to soup dumplings: not very authentic, but darn good anyway. The thin slices of pork were boosted by a marinade that had just a bit of a heat on the finish. The rice noodles were unexceptional, but had the virtue of not clumping together into a sticky lump.
The shaking beef was surprisingly good -- when it arrived at the table, Melanie said the meat looked "desiccated," but although the meat (maybe flank or skirt steak) was chewy, it was moist, and the thin slices made for a bigger surface area that showcased the marinade.
We liked the gingery sauce that came with the fish, but the fish itself was only okay: the two thin fillets (probably basa) were moist, but the batter on the outside was tough, not crisp.
The chicken fried rice and the "ten things" went largely uneaten -- mostly because of the MSG. I've never considered myself to be MSG sensitive, but my mouth still has that dull, sticky MSG feeling, and I have a slight headache.
The bill for four, with two lemonades (not very good, which surprised me, because I usually love the lemonade at VN restaurants) and two VN coffees, tax and a generous tip came to $56. Note that both the fish, and especially the soup, were more expensive than the average dish there.
Would I go back? Probably not. The food was cheap and some of it was tasty, but with so many decent-to-excellent alternatives, I don't have much incentive to put up with the "atmosphere." I think for some Tu Lan partisans the atmosphere has a "reverse chic" appeal, but I don't feel the need to prove my "authentic eats" cred by frequenting Tu Lan. If you must go, I suggest sticking to the grilled meat items, as they seemed to be the best tasting and least MSG ridden menu offerings.
8 6th St, San Francisco, CA 94103