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Out The Door

An Eye-Opening Vietnamese Breakfast

Ever since the first Slanted Door opened on a taqueria-strewn stretch of Valencia Street in 1995, owner Charles Phan has been experimenting and stretching the palates of his clientele.

Phan pushed the boundaries of Vietnamese cuisine by bending authentic recipes around his favorite local ingredients, and he dared to serve tea at $6 a pot. His most recent endeavor breaks new ground where few other Asian restaurants have dared to tread: Breakfast.

The Slanted Door has since moved to fancier digs, and Phan has continued to enrich San Francisco’s culinary panorama with more catchy, quick-service Out The Door locations (affectionately dubbed OTD) and The Moss Room at the California Academy of Sciences.

His third OTD, which opened on Bush Street in October 2009, proves he hasn’t lost his exalted touch. Phan uses a familiar-feeling industrial chic stage to introduce something entirely new: An authentic Vietnamese breakfast menu implementing his knack for adapting to the Western palate.

Dinner and lunch — including old favorites such as cellophane noodles with crab ($16) and new plates such as mesquite-grilled Niman Ranch double pork chop ($23) -- are also served, along with wine from a tap system custom designed by Olle Lundberg.

On our brunch visit, the crowd looked like a gathering of San Francisco’s food cognoscenti. Small, neatly clad groups gesticulated over smart-looking conversations, and well-heeled ladies whipped out cameras to snap pork buns. The brunch buzz in the light-filled room proved that word about Out The Door is indeed out.

Some in our party weren’t jazzed about a Vietnamese-style start to a weekend morning. The menu details four types of Vietnamese spring rolls, salads, phô, daikon rice cakes, and exotic egg dishes like rice cake egg scramble with bean sprouts, pickled daikon, and soy. What’s a Denver omelet lover to do when faced with such decisions?

Our party was peppered with some dishes from the American comfort zone. We started with beignets, the shape of which change at the chef’s whim, and Vietnamese coffee ($6). Dusted in powdered sugar, the not-sweet dough reaches its full potential once dipped into the accompanying piping hot coffee. The haters quickly perked up.

Duck confit served with shitake mushrooms and egg noodles ($9) flaked effortlessly from the bone to meet the slight chew of al dente noodles, and broth touched with the sparkle of five spices and remarkable earthiness.

The description of buttermilk pancakes with apple butter, diced Pink Lady apples, and smoked bacon maple syrup ($10) triggered our salivatory glands. Sweet, lightly salted butter melts into this stack of five light, silver-dollar-size cakes, then mingles with the smokiness of a fine bacon julienne and the tart apple’s snap. Phan can trick the Vietnamese five-senses cooking concept into a decidedly American dish.

The slightly haphazard rice cake egg scramble ($9) reminded us of something we’d throw together at home when feeling creative (or hungover). Glutinous, mochi-like rice cakes came in a one-inch dice. Pickled daikon and bean sprouts brought crunch, and the willowy softness of scrambled eggs made for delightful play.

We ended with another East-meets-West dish, bacon marmalade quiche ($12). The middle, runny with soft egg, begged for a contrasting crispy crust, but we found no structure there, and the accompanying watercress and grape salad had a cloying gingery dressing that also fell flat.

But there are so many reasons to make Out The Door part of your regular rotation. The cutting-edge wine-on-tap system deserves a visit on its own merit. Beverage manager Gus Vahlkamp curates custom blends that, he claims, cut down on waste and enable a variety of pours. This method allows Phan to sell remarkably high-quality vintages at a lower price point.

Would one expect anything less from the man who introduced us to the catfish clay pot fifteen years ago? Adding the morning meal to his repertoire, Phan’s latest novelties are surely built to last.

Asian Fusion
Pacific Heights
Reservations Essential? No