For five years now, Manivanh, a smallish place on 24th Street near Hampshire, has been one of my very favorite neighborhood restaurants in town. It's a completely unremarkable-looking Thai joint unceremoniously dumped at the grimiest edge of the Mission District, out of step with the strip's bevy of taquerias, hair salons, and, more recently, art galleries and hipster donut stands. For three years, I lived two blocks away, not far from 24th and Utah, where Jack's Club cheerfully presides over the corner. Manivanh holds just over a dozen tables, half of them empty most nights. The servers frequently look as fried as Krispy Kremes, their eyes distant and glazed. Between orders, they crane their necks to stare up at the television hovering above the counter. One afternoon, when all the area liquor stores were closed for a holiday, the host sold me a few beers to-go without so much as a blink. Manivanh is not a hole-in-the-wall, some Bourdanian treasure where fears of gastrointestinal trauma accompany each tasty bite. The interior is clean and warm, even pleasant. The neighborhood is fine, even though the 24th Street drunks' hacking coughs rattle through the window panes and swaying grocery cart barges skitter along the sidewalk outside. Satay and pad thai don't spark the excitement food-obsessed city residents work up over tacos. Everyone has a favorite Thai lunch place socked away somewhere -- the stuff of cheap lunch specials and coconut-creamed ice teas in tall plastic cups. Manivanh is a true find, unusual precisely because it's so good yet so relentlessly unexceptional in its design and scope, a regular, everyday restaurant without a whiff of marketing mojo and no rugged street food cred. Few would think to sniff it out and even fewer would bother writing about it, but I beseech you all the same to discover it, to walk down 24th Street until you can clearly hear the hum and screech of 101. Look to your left, see the sign, sit down, and order the larb-ped.
Isn't it larb-ly?
Larb is not a sludge-metal band from Florida or a faintly embarrassing medical condition. Larb may actually be those things as well, but the larbs I know first-hand are meat salads: fish sauce-y melanges in innumerable lovely variations, popular throughout Laos as well as Thailand. Refreshing and bold, Manivanh's larb-ped -- minced duck, lettuce, mint, and red onion laced with a chili-flecked lemon dressing -- is heady, almost druggy in its deliciousness, unsettlingly, crazily flavorful -- a sweet, benevolent Klaus Kinski on the palette. In the past four months, I've taken three different groups of people to Manivanh, and every single neophyte has gone batty for this minor miracle of taste and texture. I wandered down with a friend on the eve of his flight back to Philadelphia and he, upon spooning up the last bit, wondered out-loud if he could pack a few orders to bring back to the city of brotherly love. "The duck -- it's like bacon, except somehow better," another friend remarked on the night of his conversion, reaching for a third helping, unsubtly trying to snag more than his fair share of the chewy, crispy bits. Manivanh's menu beckons with many very good things, like grilled pork, chicken with chiles, onion, and fresh basil, and fried bean cake with cashews and roasted curry paste. Yet this one dish -- the transcendent larb-ped -- sends the restaurant over the top, searing it into heart and memory. Again and again, I recommend Manivanh to anyone interested -- because I want others to know it and cherish it as well.
Still, a few weeks ago, in bed, watching the long-awaited "No Reservations: San Francisco" on my laptop, I was happy not to see forkfuls of that fine ducky goodness disappearing into Anthony Bourdain's gaping maw.
Over the course of that episode, he painted a broad strokes portrait of the San Francisco he wanted to hate, a city where the good stuff has to be pried out from beneath sheet-rock layers of weak Chez Panisse-y silliness. It's a pretty cool town, he seemed to say, so long as you keep it real among the hordes of smug, self-righteous yoga mat people telling you how to eat -- in his mind, villains more onerous than greedy landlords, creeps, loud-talking Muni lunatics, and fickle fault-lines.
His pal Zamir's meltdown in Romania, however bizarre and mortifying, was, as Bourdain might intone on a clips show voice-over, good television. Making fun of vegetarians in San Francisco is not. The tall, gray host is usually much more insightful than he was here, using food as a trusty lens through which to respectfully experience the ways people live around the world. He likes delving into the preposterous, the campy, and the down-and-dirty. When it comes to eating on camera, fried squeazel, pig's eyes, chicken asses, and seven-pound tortas are his ripe texts, ideal, semi-shocking stuff he can stretch into funny, alcohol-soaked, highly watchable lessons of cultural interest.
A pedestrian pleasure such as Manivanh wouldn't interest Bourdain, at least for the sake of his show. For that, I am thankful. I like my larb line-less, my beloved local gems broadcasted via whispers, not ear-splitting bellows from some perch on Foodie Mountain where he sits every Monday, leather-jacketed, hung-over, racked with indigestion, clutching his megaphone. That's It, the deli with the seven-pound torta, sits a block away from where I currently live. One day, it was my corner store, and, the next, I had to squeeze through a mob just to get a tall can from the cooler in the back.
It may not make for good television, but you can learn a lot about the way we live from something so mundane as a neighborhood restaurant and its way with one dish -- maybe not from Manivanh specifically, but from establishments like it. In my reality, of which I am, of course, captain, Manivanh serves the best Thai food in the city. The rest of the world doesn't have to agree. Manivanh's Yelp reviews are high, four stars, on average, with some disgruntled customers, as usual, chirping up to soil the spread. Interestingly, the gripes people air about Manivanh are often very specific and personal, super-subjective criticisms unbound by universally persuasive criteria. One reviewer complains about too many onions. Another bemoans the absence of white-meat chicken. A vegetarian whines about fish sauce in the silver noodles she'd thought were meatless, claiming that the waitress rolled her eyes when she shared her grievance, which Bourdain, had he been there, hovering in the corner like a spectral watchdog, would have done too. People are inclined to be inflexible about what they eat at cheap neighborhood restaurants, particular to the point of weird, preschool-y pickiness. We want what we want, when we want it, how we think it should be made -- usually the way we've learned to like it somewhere else. Eggplant is not my favorite vegetable, but I wouldn't tell Thomas Keller that if he prepared it for me. Yet if I ordered larb-ped at another Thai restaurant, and for some stupid reason, it arrived topped with a heaping portion of soggy eggplant, I might not go back to try anything else. In such restaurants, perhaps we're really seeking personal chefs challenged to solve the mysteries of our individual tastes without clues, or an unwavering Applebee's from the block, consistently supplying whatever specific eating experience it is we desire, wherever we go. For those who've learned to love it somewhere else, it takes a lot to go out of your way to try larb like this, to begin a new relationship with a familiar food rendered foreign all over again. But, if you do, as Rick said at the end of "Casablanca," as he strode off into the mist with Captain Louis, it might be the start of a beautiful friendship.
2732 24th Street
(between Hampshire and Potrero)
San Francisco, CA 94110