Tet Celebrations and Vietnamese Eats

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Tet (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration) officially kicks off on February 3rd, but the Vietnamese Community Center of San Francisco will be getting the party started early today with its 15th Annual Tet Festival taking place in the Tenderloin's Little Saigon (Larkin Street, between Eddy and O'Farrell). There will be firecrackers and lion dancing, games, arts and crafts, and of course, food.

For those celebrating in the South Bay, the massive Tet Festival in San Jose will be held February 5 & 6 at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.

This year is the Vietnamese Year of the Cat (the only animal symbol in the Vietnamese zodiac that doesn't match the Chinese zodiac). Tet is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, and many of the traditions are similar. People travel home to celebrate with their family, houses are cleaned, lucky money is given to children, and special dishes are cooked.

In honor of Tet, here's a list of some of our favorite Vietnamese Eats in San Francisco:

1) Whole Roasted Dungeness Crab & Garlic Noodles (Crustacean)
Roasted Dungeness Crab, Crustacean
Roasted Dungeness Crab, Crustacean


The An family fled Saigon in 1975 and settled in San Francisco. Since then, their two restaurants Thanh Long and Crustacean have been delighting the Bay Area with their well-guarded family recipes. The restaurants even have a secret kitchen, a small windowless room within the main kitchen, where only family members are allowed to enter to prepare special signature sauces and dishes like their famous Whole Roasted Dungeness Crab and Garlic Noodles. The crab is succulent and blooming with roasted garlic and fragrant Vietnamese peppercorns. The garlic noodles are addictively good. However, vampires (and first dates) beware, the abundance of roasted garlic in these noodles will stay with you all night.

2) Beef Pho Tai (Bodega Bistro)
Pho Tai, Bodega Bistro
Pho Tai, Bodega Bistro

The Beef Pho Tai at Bodega Bistro is one of my go-to comfort meals in town. The broth is rich and flavorful, the strips of rare steak are tender, and best of all, the thin rice noodles have a wonderful spring to them. No soggy noodles here. Bodega Bistro cooks them perfectly al dente. The style of pho here is typical of southern Vietnam, which means each bowl is served with herby fresh greens like green onions, cilantro, Thai basil, and crunchy bean sprouts. Squeeze some lime to brighten up the broth, mix up some hoisin and sriracha for your beef, and slurp away.

3) Chicken Pho Ga (Turtle Tower)
Pho Ga, Turtle Tower
Pho Ga, Turtle Tower (Photo Credit: Jo Boston, Taking Over the World One Bite at a Time)

For a taste of northern Vietnamese-style pho, check out Turtle Tower. Flat, wide noodles, a cleansing broth, topped with only green onions and cilantro (no bean sprouts, basil, or hoisin). The Chicken Pho Ga is made with free-range chicken and features a light simple broth. If you're feeling under the weather, this nourishing bowl of goodness is a godsend.

4) Bahn Mi (Saigon Sandwich)
Bahn Mi, Saigon Sandwich
Bahn Mi, Saigon Sandwich (Photo Credit: Kat Lin, Kat's 9 Lives)

You can't walk through Little Saigon during lunchtime without noticing the perpetual line outside the unassuming Saigon Sandwich. The good news is that the line moves at a reasonable pace (thank you friendly Vietnamese ladies for having fast nimble fingers). The better news is that your patience will be rewarded with one of the best Vietnamese Sandwiches in town. Crusty, crackly French bread, slathered with mayo and a mystery meat sauce (tastes better than it sounds), stuffed full of meat, pate, pickled carrots and onion, cilantro and jalapeno. You can have your Bahn Mi made with grilled pork, chicken, "fanci" (steamed) pork, cold cuts, tofu, or the cult favorite, meatballs (The Xiu Mai Bahn Mi). At prices ranging from $3.50 to $4.25, this is one delicious steal of a meal.

5) Vietnamese Drinks (Lee's Sandwiches)
Rainbow Drink (Chè Ba Màu), Lee's Sandwiches
Rainbow Drink (Chè Ba Màu), Lee's Sandwiches

The Lee's Sandwiches on Larkin Street is part Vietnamese fast food, part mini-mart. They keep a good stock of authentic Vietnamese snacks and baked goods, but my favorite reason to walk into Lee's is the expansive beverage selection. There is Vietnamese Iced Coffee (café sua dá) of course, dripped strong, mixed with sweetened condensed milk, and poured over crushed ice. But there are also more exotic offerings like Rainbow Drink (Chè Ba Màu), a sweet, icy, colorful drink made with red azuki beans, a green pandan jelly, and buttery coconut milk. And, if you see a container of what looks like tadpoles sitting innocently next to the bottled water, don't freak out, it's just Pennyworth Drink made with basil seeds.

6) Pork Belly (Le Colonial)
Thit Kho Chien, Le Colonial
Thit Kho Chien, Le Colonial

Sumptuous and elegant, you feel instantly transported to 1920's French Vietnam when you walk into the breezy dining room of Le Colonial. Chef Joe Villanueva's Thit Kho Chien is one of the best pork belly dishes I've ever tasted. It is a confit of Berkshire Pork Belly that is masterfully prepared -- with a delicately crispy, caramelized crust, and a melt in your mouth texture. It is served with pickled bok choy, Hosui pear and quail egg segments, and drizzled with savory caramel sauce and truffle oil. Simply divine. In celebration of Tet, Le Colonial will be featuring some special dishes on Thursday 2/3.

Related Story from KQED Radio News:
Vietnamese-Americans Celebrate Lunar New Year
This week marks the most important holiday of the year for Vietnamese-Americans. It's the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, and it's celebrated around the Bay Area at the annual Tet Festival.
( *first audio story is: Many Californians Await News of Loved Ones From Egypt)