P. Punko’s banh mi mapping project prompted me to head to San Francisco’s Tenderloin last week to hunt for and try places I’ve not been before. At the head of the list of chow finds is Tu Kim’s Cafe on Ellis.
Yes, the banh mi is superlative here. The Vietnamese coffee is the best I can recall in the City. And, the ladies behind the counter are as sweet as can be.
Meatball banh mi –
Yet, it’s the noodle soup that puts Tu Kim over the top. Greaseless, sheer, crystalline pure pork stock, the archetypal kind of light and near colorless but flavorful Vietnamese soup I’d given up trying to find around here. It’s not available every day. One of the women explained to me, “Our business is coffee and sandwich. But our customers like to stay here a long time, and they get hungry again. So, we can make noodle soup for them.” There’s a choice of “yellow or white”, meaning yellow egg noodles or white banh canh.
The thick, ropey banh canh, made of rice flour and tapioca starch, were hard to corral, slipping off my chopsticks, bouncing off the spoon, and springing into the soup. The modest-sized bowl of chewy noodles was topped with about a half-dozen thin slices of tender and juicy pork loin rimmed with a bit of succulent fat, some velvety cubes of pork blood cake, two perfectly cooked shrimp (deveined and tails removed even), chopped scallions, a tiny bit of minced cilantro, crunchy freshly fried garlic, and lots of black pepper. A wedge of lemon and a squeeze bottle of tuong ot toi (sambal oelek type chili sauce) were provided as accompaniments. Dazzling in its simplicity and clean lines, this bowl of noodle soup sang in perfect harmony.
Banh canh (noodle soup) -
No menus or price lists posted, so here’s what I know.
Banh mi (meatball or pork combination), $2.50
Banh canh, $6.00
Prices include sales tax.
Tu Kim Cafe
609 Ellis St, San Francisco, CA 94109