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Born into a food-loving southern California family, Sangeetha Raghunathan is a legal eagle by day and a passionate eater at all times. The fact that she's a lifelong vegetarian didn't stop her from embarking on a taxi adventure in San Francisco. Here's how her first West Coast food quest played out.

San Francisco Dispatch: Tu Lan in the Tenderloin

Born into a food-loving southern California family, Sangeetha Raghunathan is a legal eagle by day and a passionate eater at all times. The fact that she’s a lifelong vegetarian didn’t stop her from embarking on a taxi adventure in San Francisco. Here’s how her first West Coast food quest played out. Stay tuned for more of her Bay Area adventures.

Photo by Ji K. on yelp.com

“I wore comfortable shoes,” said Louise. “So did I,” I replied.

For two women about to embark on a taxi adventure, the talk of comfortable shoes may seem strange.

But in San Francisco, getting a cab is a much harder challenge than finding a great meal.

Long-time San Franciscans cite a variety of reasons, including lack of sufficient permits, the price of permits, or the lack of centralized dispatch system.

The fact remains that calling a cab is an exercise in patience…and flagging one down anywhere outside of the Financial District takes talent, persistence, and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

Louise and I walked for about 20 minutes, jaywalked across busy intersections, and debated the best intersection for cab visibility before finally parking ourselves at a bus stop by the BART station and grabbing a cab that was dropping off a passenger.

Our driver had just started his shift and seemed inclined to chat. Being a taxi adventure novice, I wasn’t sure how to start.

“We’re starving,” I told him, “and were wondering if you had suggestions for a place to eat.”

“What do you feel like,” he asked? Guiding him seemed contrary to the spirit of the taxi adventure philosophy so we told him we were open to suggestion. “Somewhere you’d want to eat right now,” I said.

Unfortunately, our driver must have missed lunch because he seemed inclined to eat at a dozen different restaurants and couldn’t settled upon one place.

Finally, I said, “if you had to go eat somewhere right this second, where would you go?” After thinking for a few minutes, he said he had a craving for cheesesteak in North Beach. Finally!

Unfortunately, I’m a vegetarian and Louise only occasionally ventures into carnivorous fare, so after looking at each other for a few seconds, we both declined.

Our driver seemed stumped by our simultaneous unwillingness to give him guidance and apparent fussiness, but after a few seconds, he suggested a local Indian restaurant where Louise and I both regularly eat. We were both stumped as to how to get him to take us to the elusive whole-in-the-wall, gem, and I finally gave in and said, “we need something cheap and tasty.”

Pleased that we had finally expressed any preference, he said “of course, I’ll take you to Tu Lan!”

Ten minutes later, we pulled up in the Tenderloin next to a storefront that I would have never noticed. “Ask to sit upstairs,” our driver said, “no one knows to sit upstairs. And order the spring rolls.”

The downstairs was narrow and packed and I was grateful for the tip about upstairs seating. The alcove next to the staircase housed an enormous, steaming rice cooker and soup pot and I wondered if we’d be treated to table-side cooking. Strangely enough, the upstairs was quite spacious and empty and Louise and I took a table in the middle of the room.

Following our driver’s suggestion, we started off with spring rolls. I’m always pleased when spring rolls are packed with fresh mint, but the filling was otherwise bland. The peanut sauce on the side was strangely addictive though. A burst of tangy peanut flavor with mild onion that made me want to eat it with a spoon.

#77 on the menu caught my attention, as it was intriguingly-named “Ten Things Mixed Up In the Pot,” but as our waiter could not identify the ten things, we opted – at his recommendation – for the bean cake with crispy noodle and and the sauteed mixed rice noodles. The crispy noodles came right away and we could see that portions were enormous.

The sauce and vegetables were fresh, but the noodles were not quite as crispy as promised. We tried to pace ourselves while waiting for the second dish to arrive. Our waiter, however, seemed a little harried and apparently had given it away to another table who didn’t seem to mind getting the wrong order.

Indeed, there is an air of casualness about Tu Lan. The tables next to us engage in a friendly food fight while our waiter – who gamely informed us that it was his first day – sat down next to us halfway through our meal and started to eat his soup. He did pause to serve us our second dish – mixed noodles with just the right proportion of noodles, vegetables, meat, and sauce – before finishing his own meal.

In a neighborhood that borders Little Saigon, Tu Lan doesn’t stand out as a gem, but the service has a family feel, the portions are generous, and the price is just right.

Tu Lan
8-6th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 626-0927
Open: Mon-Sat 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m
Beer & Wine – Cash only
tulansf.blogspot.com

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