Let me tell you a story…the man called “woopak” can go around places that most people would be terrified to go to. Honestly, whatever the so-called “bad areas” in San Francisco are nothing compared to the slums of my native land. Way back between the year 1997 and 1998, a real gorgeous lady friend of mine (you know who you are) took me to a restaurant that can definitely be seen as a ‘HOLE IN THE WALL”. This restaurant was located in a place that had a real bad reputation during that time (it‘s gotten a lot better since 2001); dope dealers were loitering around, homeless folks were sleeping on the sidewalk, panhandlers and imbalanced men were all around.
Yet, along Sixth Street, between Market and Mission Streets, I saw a line of regular office people who were wearing $ 700 suits (expensive during this time) while some were obviously reporters from the nearby San Francisco Chronicle offices. The line led to a fluorescent-lit small restaurant that looked like a tiny “bodega” with burn marks on the walls of the stove area. The kitchen is clean but it just looks like one of those small warehouses. The place reeked of the scent of great tasting food and this extraordinary place was called “Tu Lan”, a place where they serve authentic Vietnamese food. Me, being who I am, would never judge anything by the way it looked so me and my friend took a seat and enjoyed the great fresh food that Tu Lan served.
It has been many years since that first visit and the memorable day when I was introduced to this restaurant. I’ve since taken several of my friends to this place and we often take food home from this restaurant. Tu Lan also became my ‘testing ground’ for my 5th to 6th dates, since I can see how much I can relate to a woman with the way she reacts to a place that doesn’t look fancy yet they serve better food than the expensive Vietnamese restaurants down in Clement. To make things short, I take the woman I really like to “Tu Lan” just to see her roll her eyes with one look at the place and then later, smile with delight when served with the fantastic tasting marinated fish and possibly the best fried rice in town. I can afford gourmet restaurants, but ladies, next to me actually cooking for you, if I take you to Tu Lan, then I really like you.
Today, “Tu Lan” has become a lot less like a ‘bodega’ and more like a small eatery; and yes, the burn marks in the kitchen are gone and the counter is much more larger and made "spiffier" these days. I like sitting by the counter as I can see the fresh ingredients make their way to the pots and pans. You won’t see a single can in Tu Lan’s kitchen, everything is made from scratch; from the roll wrappers and the noodles to the smallest shrimp, they are all fresh. The cooks and servers have no uniform, they just wear regular t-shirt and jeans. The cooks have hats and huge aprons and they are all Vietnamese.
The Ginger Chicken is just marvelous and # 24 is just so good. Make sure you bring your appetite when you come to Tu Lan because you are in for a feast. Tu Lan also has daily specials and the sweet and sour prawn soup is to die for. They have combo plates and my favorite is the pork kebab with imperial rolls over steamed rice. The marinated fish is also a favorite as well as the Hanoi style noodle soup. However, you just have to try their fried rice; made with pork, chicken, beef or shrimp. Round up the meal with a dessert of either fried banana or pineapple, and you will go home very satisfied.
I have to admit that I prefer taking my favorite Tu Lan dishes home so that I can relax and really enjoy it. The place does get so packed with people that often, I feel like I am being rushed with the meal. The food is just so satisfying in this extraordinary restaurant that waves after waves of new and older customers just keep on coming back. I’m a regular customer at “Tu Lan” and they know me in this place. I try to go to the place at least once a month, and I am happy to report that all of the friends I’ve taken there have all become regular customers. Also, don't let the lighted signage on its side fool you; TU LAN is NOT fast food, but GREAT food made fast! The owners just decided to keep the sign despite the fact that they made a mistake in the interpretation of "fast food".
“Tu Lan is worth the trip to 6th Street, and not to worry, the dope dealers don’t loiter within 100 yards of the place. A lot of cops come by to eat there. “Tu Lan” is great eatin’! Or am I just being biased because up to this day, they still charge me their old prices back in 2000 and they still give me huge portions? My friends always have me with them when they buy their food. Well, I would pay almost any price for a plate of that shrimp fried rice!