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Charles Phan's Bánh Mì Is Not Here to Take You Down Memory Lane

“Charles Phan had more impact on Vietnamese food than any other chef in the country.” — Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle.

When preparing for my upcoming move, I debated which of my many books would come along with me. One book that immediately went into the box was Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food, a cookbook featuring about a hundred recipes from the iconic San Francisco restaurant The Slanted Door, littered with curled neon pink bookmarks that I hastily made out of post-its and placed on the page of every recipe or story about its formation that caught my imagination.

Today Charles Phan is billed as the “inventor of modern Vietnamese cuisine in America” by Food Network and a recipient of the James Beard Foundation 2004 award for Best Chef: California, often fondly referred to as the “Oscars of the food world” and considered to be the highest honor in the culinary community.

His most well-known restaurant, The Slanted Door — recipient of the James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2014 — was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the first Asian restaurants to create a serious wine list and bar program using organic ingredients. Despite being around for over two decades, and having almost 300 seats in its waterfront Ferry Building location, the restaurant is always packed for lunch and dinner service.

But it wasn’t that long ago that Charles was lucky to even get the opportunity to bus tables at fine-dining establishments.

The Slanted Door’s space. Photos via Instagram page @slanteddoor.

Before bánh mì: coffee, architecture, and menswear

Charles Phan spent his childhood in 1960s Đà Lạt where his mother grew up, and where his father immigrated to; they both are of Chinese descent. Across from the steps leading down to the hilly city’s central market, his parents owned a general store. Behind, a mì xào giòn cart would set up shop, serving crunchy fried wheat noodles with a savory seafood gravy, while another cart would serve up hot, crispy, turmeric-tinged bánh xèo, forming the basis of some of Charles’ fondest food memories.

In 1971, his father bought a coffee farm nearby, only for them to have to abandon it four years later in 1975. “We left the very day of April 30, 1975. I actually saw the very tank that crushed the gate and went through the Presidential Palace,” Charles tells me, thinking back to when he was thirteen. In order to leave Vietnam that day in a cargo ship with 400 other people, “We got there before the sun set and waited by a nearby ship, and at midnight, we slipped in there. They pulled out at two in the morning,” he recounts in a Good Food podcast episode.

The cargo ship ended up getting lost and being picked up by Malaysian patrol boats that took them to Singapore. Charles recognizes how lucky they were for this to be the case, “When you’re at sea it’s very scary — an approaching ship could be pirates or other bad people.” But not everyone felt so grateful towards the Singaporeans. Laughing, Charles recounts to me, “They literally brought us food every day. I remember the first day [when] they just showed up and they didn’t have anything — they brought us fourteen loaves of bread for 400 people. And the Vietnamese were a little pissed off. They expect Singaporeans to come with a feast or something. [So they] threw one loaf back into the ocean, and once the boat left, a guy — half-naked — jumped into the water and grabbed the bread.” I guess some things never change; the Vietnamese will go to great lengths for their bánh mì.

"I guess some things never change: the Vietnamese will go to great lengths for their bánh mì."

From Singapore’s waters, there were seaworthy ships prepared with appropriate navigation and fuel (a luxury not all boats leaving Vietnam had) that enabled refugees to either return to Vietnam, immigrate to Taiwan, or immigrate to America by way of Guam. Charles playfully reminisces, “They made sure to park the ship far away enough so you can’t swim to Singapore. But everyone wanted to go there. [When] people got sick, they got an army escort to go see a doctor in Singapore. I remember there was an eye infection that spread across the whole ship, but I didn't get it. I would try to poke my eye out with salt water to make it red, in hopes that I could go on a field trip [to Singapore]...But I guess I didn't poke it hard enough!”

Charles’ mother pushed for America, so the family of ten — two parents, Charles, his five younger siblings, and an aunt and uncle — ended up on the Micronesian island of Guam as they waited for a sponsor in America. “You had the choice to get on a plane and they’ll take you wherever they drop you, or you get to stay in Guam. At the refugee camp, there were stories of people going to Minnesota with snow and ice, and you know, we’re from the Tropics so we didn’t want to go. My mom opted to stay in Guam. She was always very forward-thinking.”

“Guam was [sic] 400,000 people and you live in big army tents. When there was a monsoon, water was running through your feet. As time goes by, it gets smaller and smaller and they move you to an army barrack,” Charles recounts. “We were the last family. There were ten of us and no one wanted to sponsor us. They’ll sponsor two or four people, but when there’s ten of you, no one wants to adopt that many people in the household.” So, after two years in Guam, his aunt and uncle split off as their own family.

Photo via Wikipedia.

So on July 7, 1977, two years and two months after leaving Vietnam, Charles and his family flew Pan-Am to San Francisco. “We had friends in San Francisco and they said they rented two beautiful apartments — turned out they got us two studios in the Tenderloin for ten people,” laughed Charles, referring to apartments that didn't even have a door separating the bedroom from the common area, in a neighborhood that had 40% of the city's drug overdoses and a quarter of its homicides in the 1970s. The notorious neighborhood became Charles’ first impression of San Francisco: “Coming from a small town [in Vietnam], and Guam was pitch dark, the Tenderloin was very colorful — lights, prostitutes. It was just mind-boggling when I first got here.”

As a sign of what was to come in his career, “My dad got a job, somehow, in Chinatown as a janitor in a restaurant, and I started working in the restaurant a year later, bussing tables when I was 16. That’s how I got into the restaurant business.” Charles worked at a range of food and beverage joints from British pubs to nightclubs. “Back then [at predominately white restaurants], it was rare that they even had me [a Vietnamese person] as a busser,” he recalls. “Everyone asked me, ‘Where are you from? Why are you here? Are you supposed to be here?’ like I came from Mars.”

At the end of high school, Charles found himself with acceptance letters from a couple of art schools (due to his skills in pottery), as well as Berkeley. Well, I’m sure you can guess which school his father pushed him to choose. After studying architecture at Berkeley for three years (he dropped out as a protest to steep tuition hikes), he went home and ran his mom’s sewing shop, creating a men’s clothing line, named Fin du Siècle, along the way.

“I got emotional the minute I landed at Tân Sơn Nhất. It had just rained, and the street smell, the dirt, the smoke — it was just like I had remembered. There’s nothing romantic about it, but it got me emotional.”

Funny enough, it was his clothing, not his culinary experience, that brought him back to Vietnam after seventeen years away. In 1992, he returned to the motherland to help with sourcing for a local sewing shop. “I got emotional the minute I landed at Tân Sơn Nhất. Leaving the taxi to go into the city — the smell. It had just rained, and the street smell...the dirt...the smoke... It was just like I had remembered. There’s nothing romantic about it, but it got me emotional.”

Once that job ended, Charles went back to California where he worked at a software company for two years before it folded. It was at this time that he started to look at new career options.

The fish heads can’t hurt you

“I’m very entrepreneurial, just like my father and mother. And part of me was really annoyed in Berkeley that people just didn’t take Asian designers seriously. They thought that I should have been in the engineering or math department,” Charles continues. “So I had this idea in my head for 10 years. I wanted to show [that] Vietnamese restaurants could have great designs. We already have great food, so I don’t need to reinvent that.”

Slanted Door in the Mission District on Opening Day. Photo courtesy of The Slanted Door.

Originally envisioned as a bánh xèo shop, The Slanted Door opened with a six-item menu in 1995 in the Mission District. At that time, the Mission was a predominantly working-class Hispanic neighborhood, though today it is a gentrified neighborhood with artisanal ice cream shops and commissioned street art to serve as a backdrop for your Instagram photos. Charles kept the menu simple: phở, bún, and the like. “But,” Charles adds, “because I came from fine dining, I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t do phở or bún at night, I focused on other entrées. Who eats phở at night anyways?”

Like many other immigrant chefs, Charles worked to find a balance in his menu. “It’s a constant question, as a chef, where your voice is. For years I struggled... Will people buy this? Is this too white? Is this too Vietnamese?” He recalls of his early years: “It was hard [then] because you don’t know. I remember selling four whole fish, and two of them came back. People didn’t want to pay for it. They got upset; they cried; they saw the head. I think Vietnamese and Chinese kids are trained to be adventurous, but here [in America], it’s the opposite.”

"I remember selling four whole fish, and two of them came back. People didn’t want to pay for it. They got upset; they cried; they saw the head. I think Vietnamese and Chinese kids are trained to be adventurous, but here, it’s the opposite."

But he must have eventually gotten it right because in less than a decade, he received the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: California in 2004 and within another decade, The Slanted Door was named the nation’s most Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.

“I was floored when we won. I thought, ‘This’d better not be a joke because I’ll be very upset.’ I came home, and the internet crashed. Our site got so crushed. And that’s when I found out that I have a very cheap [Internet] hosting company,” Charles reminisces. To understand the significance of the award, you have to remember that it was 2014, and Asian food didn’t enjoy the same interest and recognition it does today.

Charles and The Slanted Door’s first dishwasher, Daniel. Photo courtesy of The Slanted Door.

“That was just unheard of [then]. It’s always been very Euro-centric with these awards. And now it’s good that people aren’t treating these foods like some cheap hole-in-the-wall place — which we all love. Now people are a little bit more adventurous. Now no one returns a fish because it has a head. You don’t realize how far we’ve come in terms of food and what we expect of food.”

Where are the pickles?

Today, Charles isn’t afraid of cooking the dishes he wants and editing them to his liking. Since opening The Slanted Door, the chef and restaurateur has opened up many different concepts, including his newest venture: Chuck’s Takeaway.

This takeaway bánh mì shop features classic combinations like pâté and chả with mayonnaise, cucumbers, jalepeño, and a crush of herbs in his stuffed C.P.’s No. 3, as well as more location-inspired sandwiches like Jo Jo’s Bollito which swaps out the baguette with a toasted bun and is filled with tender braised beef belly smothered in tangy, spicy salsa verde.

The CP No. 3 from Chuck’s Takeaway.

And in a Charles twist, he serves his pickled seasonal vegetables (think more Romanesco broccoli, Fresno chiles, and radishes, and less shredded carrots and daikon) on the side, not in the sandwich — a move a pickle hater like me is very happy to hear.

“There’s a small segment of people who are mad about it. They ask, ‘Where are the pickles?’,” he tells me. “People don’t say that to chefs who are doing a new type of food, but when it’s traditional dishes, if people have certain memories with traditional dishes, they just react and don’t think straight. I’m not here to take you on a trip down memory lane.”

"They ask: 'Where are the pickles?' People don’t say that to chefs who are doing a new type of food. When it’s traditional dishes, they just react and don’t think straight. I’m not here to take you on a trip down memory lane."

At US$16, the sandwich is bound to get some haters, as seen in Yelp reviews. One reviewer writes "I wouldn't call this an everyday lunch spot bc $$$," while on the other hand, another reviewer comments, "I will admit that the baguette is really nice and soft (probably the best baguette I've had), [...] I really wish it had the traditional pickled daikon and carrots." Charles reflects: “This latest round with Chuck’s has been amazing — it’s the best praise we’ve had from Vietnamese people. The tides have really turned.”

Jo Jo’s Bollito from Chuck’s Takeaway.

When you learn about the effort Charles puts into his sandwiches, the price makes sense. He spent years perfecting his bánh mì baguettes. He tracked down a guy in Vietnam and paid to learn from him. After that, he had to change the baguette recipe to meet his standard of bread conditioner and achieve the perfect, yet almost impossible to combine, texture: crunchy and light on the outside with density and a chewy pull on the inside, mimicking a good sourdough. He elaborates: “Ten to fifteen years ago, the food was expected to be a certain price. And yes my food is expensive, and I make no qualms about it. I’ve got to take care of myself, my farmers, my staff, buy sustainable ingredients and make my own pâté, chả... I actually make less money this way since it’s not super efficient since I have to make everything small-batch.”

Charles 4.0

Currently, Charles is working on renovating the San Francisco Ferry Building location of The Slanted Door and its takeaway offshoot Out the Door, as well as opening up a new concept, Moonset, a small shop which will focus on his love of noodles.

“I have to think of the next version of me: Charles 4.0. I should retire, but it’s more scary now because it’s not just my name I’m protecting, but it’s everyone’s job. I know I have to change to stay successful.”

When asked about his version of the future, Charles answered: “I hope with my cooking, if anything, that the next generation will carry the baton that I’m carrying, promoting culture and heritage, taking care of the farmers, making beautiful food. Passing down these things are [sic] important because food is not just about flavor. It’s history, a way of thinking...”

Photo via sfgate.com.

“I was just in Seattle and I saw more Vietnamese chefs starting to put Vietnamese food in a different context. Some do it with a tweezer, and more power to them. I would never cook with a tweezer, but that doesn’t mean there’s a real right or wrong [way]. The fact that you’re paying homage to a culture you love, that’s your own, and you’re exploring it. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

To Charles, the promotion of Vietnamese food, in any way, shape, or form, is deserving of support: “You’re actually putting this culture on a pedestal, and you’re trying to broadcast this way of thinking, way of eating, the way of Vietnamese people, and I think that’s wonderful. Whatever medium you want to use is fine, you’re still preaching the Vietnamese gospel, and I’m all for that.”

"Whatever medium you want to use is fine, you’re still preaching the Vietnamese gospel, and I’m all for that."

Graphic by Hannah Hoàng, Phan Nhi and Hương Đỗ.