Sunflower

The Vietnamese eatery is a bloom on Potrero
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

An as-yet unnamed phenomenon involves the transformation of stylish or distinctive restaurant spaces into homier Asian spots. The most conspicuous example I can think of is the restaurant adjoining the Hotel Milano, at Fifth and Mission. At one point, about 15 years ago, it held a Michel Richard venture, Bistro M, and now it's a Thai joint, with purple neon signage.

A more recent exhibit is the migration, or extension, of the Vietnamese restaurant Sunflower from its longtime haunt at Valencia and 16th streets to the old Baraka space on Potrero Hill. For years, Sunflower has been a perfectly decent, modestly priced, rather ordinary-looking restaurant in a stratified and hypercompetitive venue, while Baraka was a small jewel, slightly above the fray on its hillside perch. I would not have foreseen the melding of the two. But now, when you step into what was Baraka, you'll smell lemongrass — and much as I liked Baraka in its several guises over the past six years, I like lemongrass as much. (Outside, incidentally, you're likely to smell the garlic breath of Goat Hill Pizza across the street.)

The restaurant's décor looks to have been (so far) little touched by the regime change and the new, golden name. The walls of the h-shaped dining room are still a throbbing red, and there is no host's station, which means that a line of tables begins within a few feet of the front door. This is awkward for all parties concerned, and it would be worse if the staff was less attentive. But they are very attentive, and blockages are cleared quickly. Still, the tables just inside the door are not exactly choice, and if you can find your way to a table on either side of the dining room, or deeper in, you'll probably be happier.

The menu reflects the degree to which Vietnamese cooking has come to be accepted as another variety of American comfort food. You can certainly get similar stuff for quite a bit less in the Tenderloin, where it is served in much more modest settings that remind us of how ragged things were for many Vietnamese immigrants a generation ago, at the close of the Vietnam War. And you can get far fancier — and pricier — food at the Slanted Door. Sunflower sits somewhere between these two poles; it is upscale, in a mild, neighborhood way, while remaining more or less traditional and comparatively inexpensive in its cooking.

You can get imperial rolls, you can get pho (although it's not called that), you can get garlic noodles ($7.95), and they are excellent. You can also get spring rolls, either with shrimp or in vegetarian guise ($6.95 either way); we found the vegetarian version to be a little heavy on the tofu — big, spongy blocks of tastelessness right in the middle of things.

Better were the vegetarian pot stickers ($6.95), which had been steamed (instead of wok-seared in the Chinese style) and therefore lacked that nicely caramelized base. They were also damper overall than their Chinese counterparts, and contained tofu. But they also held a wealth of shredded cabbage and mushroom chunks and were served with a velvet-smooth peanut sauce that helped make up any flavor deficiency.

If you like imperial rolls but are hesitant about ordering deep-fried items outright, you can find them slipped into your vermicelli ($7.95), a big bowl of fine rice noodles overlaid with bean sprouts, mint, ground peanuts, nuoc nam (the ubiquitous, salty-sweet sauce), and some kind of flesh, or no flesh. The barbecued beef in a lemongrass marinade was ethereally tender and fragrant, while the imperial rolls were flawless: nicely crisped skins (with a bit of stubble) enclosing an earthy blend of minced pork and taro.

Grilled lemongrass chicken ($13.95) is generally a bulletproof favorite. Here the kitchen uses strips of boneless breast meat, and as any Thanksgiving cook knows, it's the white breast meat that's most in peril of drying out.

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