A Tale of two malls

Out the Door and New Filipinas
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paulr@sfbg.com

Whether euphemism is entirely a separate language or just a dialect, we need translational efforts to understand what is really being said in its slippery idiom. When foreign ministers tell the media they have enjoyed "frank and cordial discussions," we peek behind the fluttering veil of words to see that they bitterly argued and threatened each other. And when we read hosannas in the San Francisco Chronicle to the city's burgeoning "service industry" — mentioned in that paper's recent piece about our present and delightful "golden age" — we should understand that we are reading largely about the business of tourism. We might not yet be the Monaco of the Pacific Coast — a huge, gleaming apparatus whose principal function is to relieve visitors of their money; a bizarro ATM that sucks in cash rather than giving it out — but we are well on our way.

In this connection, we are blessed by the fact that tourists must eat and can be charged for the privilege. Restaurants are becoming our casinos. Not long ago, on a holiday weekend afternoon, I found myself swimming through seas of people in the basement of Westfield San Francisco Centre, the great new mall in the midst of the city. The basement is where many of the food establishments are, and I was en route to a rendezvous at the Out the Door, second offspring of the now world-famous Slanted Door. (The first OtD is in the Ferry Building, along with the mother ship.) If I had squinted slightly, I could easily have convinced myself that I was in the international terminal of some busy airport closed because of bad weather, leaving thousands of stranded travelers nothing better to do than shuffle through shops peddling chichi stuff and eat at fancified restaurants that seem more alike the more they struggle to seem different from one another. (Any casino in Las Vegas answers to this description, incidentally, and so do Honolulu's Waikiki district and much of Palm Springs.)

As the name implies, Out the Door is set up to offer takeout, and the restaurant offers a small but appealing array of Southeast Asian grocery staples, such as cellophane packages of rice noodles and bottles of fish sauce, at reasonable prices. But there is also a huge dining room whose far wall — a checkerboard of flat glass rectangles in various shades of cream, beige, and brown — looks like a giant version of that sensor panel Mr. Spock was forever scanning on the old starship Enterprise. One difference: Spock's panels blinked; Out the Door's panels don't. Maybe they will someday.

Befitting the restaurant's pedigree, the food is prepared to a high standard, with immaculate ingredients, although the dishes themselves are modest in origin: a simple steamed bun ($3), say, the size of a baseball and stuffed with minced chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and surprisingly muted ginger. A bit more lively are the Vietnamese-style sandwiches on perfectly tender baguettes, among them a Saigon roast-pork number ($8) whose juicy, five spice–scented meat is enhanced with sprigs of cilantro, and a braised-meatball edition ($8), which includes coarse-ground pork of the sort you often see floating in bowls of pho.

Out the Door doesn't call its beef noodle soup ($9.50) pho, incidentally, but that doesn't dim its luster: it's the one truly exceptional dish we came across, with a golden broth of almost espressolike density and smoothness. If, as a friend said, the measure of pho is the broth, then Out the Door's pho measures up.

There are dressier, less street-carty choices available, among them grilled prawns over vermicelli ($10.50), elegant but a bit underpowered despite the strong presence of fresh mint, and barbecued pork spareribs ($10.50), beautifully tender under their honey-hoisin glaze. If these are higher-rent possibilities than sandwiches and steamed buns, they are nonetheless honest and sturdy.

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