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Restaurant Profiles: 3 of Downtown’s Newest

by Max Hauser

Thaiphoon
185 Castro
(650) 988 1488
www.thaiphoonrestaurant.com

Seabass Tamarind

Opened November 2009.  Styles itself “Pan-Asian,” with a strongly Thai menu.  Four lunches so far showed impressive kitchen.  Service, eager but awkward at first, improved in later visits.  Roti (Indian-style flatbread with dipping sauce, $6.50), in Thaiphoon’s phyllo-like version, had spicy coconut-puree sauce so delicious we reserved some for the rice with the main courses.  Other appetizers: Vegetarian “lettuce wraps” ($8) presented kung-pao-like filling to wrap in crisp lettuce.  Dark hoisinish sauce coated diced crisp vegetables and tofu; very savory, good counterpoint to lettuce.  Chicken Satay ($8.25) arrived nicely cooked, moist and tender, less coconut-oil heaviness than I’ve often seen, with a mild peanut sauce and crisp cold chopped vegetables.  Lunch specials (all around $9), most with rice (white or brown), were substantial with soup and Thai salad.  “Chicken with Thai basil,” a spicy stir-fry, was skillfully done with fresh vegetables, bright flavors, the advertised “hot” only moderate by local standards on two different occasions. From diverse noodle offerings, I tried a very sound pad see-ew, the folksy sweet-savory dish with thick soy sauce, broccoli, egg, and optional meats.

Pho Garden
246 Castro
(650) 968 4183
www.phogardensf.com
PhoOpened in January.  Pho, the Vietnamese noodle-soup meal-in-a-bowl, is a clear broth with sliced beef or other meaty ingredients, rice noodles, herbs, and side garnishes.  For anyone new to it, it’s not actually spelled P-H-O, the vowel is a Vietnamese modified O.  Thus it’s not pronounced “foe;” rather “fur” without the R.  Name and dish derive from French pot au feu,“pot on the fire,” a traditional Sunday dinner dish, adapted in Vietnam to local ingredients.  A proper pho broth takes so long to simmer that restaurants often shortcut it with commercial bouillon bases or MSG, giving only a shadow of what real pho is about.  Three visits to the new Pho Garden found a much more genuine broth than usual locally, at similar price.  I detected bones and vegetables; manager confirmed, proudly claiming the broth simmers seven hours.  A “large” pho with garnishes, a substantial meal, barely broke $8.  Pho Garden’s service and appearance were disappointing.  One appetizer (there’s an interesting range) arrived garnished with lettuce leaves, hiding a dirt blob, evidently never rinsed.  In my experience Pho Garden has been a good place to try a real pho broth, but that’s been its main attraction.  Try Pho Ngon, 2500 El Camino “B” at Showers: Not downtown, but another recent restaurant (2009) with fine Phos in our experiences, and also lively non-pho dishes pictured in photographs along the walls.

Bushido
156 Castro
(650) 386 6821
www.bushidoizakaya.com

Okonnomiyaki, Japanese pancake made with flour, eggs, cabbage and green onions.

Opened in March, replacing unsuccessful “3TA,” Bushido is styled an “izakaya” restaurant offering casual Japanese small plates and beverages, including full bar.  Bushido smokes its own meats, has its own dessert chef, and promptly became a favorite of employees at The Kitchen Table nearby, who first recommended it.  Two visits so far tried gyoza (pot stickers) with and without kimchee option (Korean spicy pickled vegetables added to the filling), a pleasant crab-croquette appetizer with dipping sauce, various noodle dishes, a decent bento box, an okonomiyaki (savory vegetable) pancake, and a lemon parfait dessert (courses averaged about $7).   We found the gyoza very fresh, the kimchee variation outstanding on two occasions.  Noodle dishes tried include ramen (the Japanese fresh-noodle soups, not the dried imitations).  Shoyu (soy-sauce) ramens were simply garnished by ramen-house standards, the broth slow-simmered, subtle, slightly smoky from smoked pork, of which thin slices also garnished the soup.  Mabo (Ma Po tofu) ramen had a thickened broth, also smoky; lots of tofu, less spicy than the usual classic Ma Po tofu of Sichuan.  Yakisoba noodle bowl looked interesting, with many garnishes, but the diner found it bland.  Okonomiyaki pancake (in the mochi-cheese garnish option), maybe 5 inches across, arrived elaborately finished and sauce-drizzled.  I thought the flavor delicate and complex, and that it would make a fine appetizer or snack with drinks.  Dessert chef said she favors lighter desserts with fruit.  The lemon parfait layered light cake, lemon curd, and a little whipped cream, and disappeared quick.  A 4:30-6:00 p.m. Happy-Hour deal with separate bar menu began in mid-April.

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