In 1995, Charles Phan opened The Slanted Door in San Francisco’s Mission District and introduced the dining public to the relatively unexplored cuisine of his native Vietnam. The restaurant became an overnight sensation. Since then, Phan has moved his restaurant to the historic Ferry Building, earned a James Beard Foundation Best Chef of California Award, and been inducted to the James Beard Foundation’s list of “Who’s Who of Food in America.”
In his second cookbook, The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food (Ten Speed Press, 2014), Phan intersperses iconic recipes such as Seared Scallops with Vietnamese Beurrre Blanc, Wok-Seared Eggplant with Satay Sauce, and Rack of Lamb with Tamarind Sauce, with stories of his life, his restaurant, and of course, its food.
An admitted carnivore, Phan has long believed meat should be treated as a kind of a condiment. “I think meat should be the accent on a dish and not the main carrier, ” he said. “No one eats a rib eye steak in China or Vietnam.”
He often transforms meaty dishes into their more simple vegetarian cousins. Spring rolls, for instance, a popular street food in Vietnam, are usually made with shrimp and pork. But Phan’s vegetarian version, on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1995, contains tofu, shiitake mushrooms, and cabbage. “You need the tofu and the cabbage to mimic the flavor profile and texture of the shrimp and pork, ” he explained. Bundles of cellophane noodles and fistfuls of mint and shredded lettuce fill up the rice paper wrapper. For dipping, traditional fish sauce is a no no, so his peanut sauce gets amped up with added miso.
“The key to every meal is balance, ” said Phan. “You want to have some vegetables and rice and then just a little meat.” Or in this case, none at all.
Cook’s Note: When making the spring rolls at home, use a plastic cutting board instead of a wooden one. The rice paper noodles stick to wood and slide off the plastic easily.
Vegetarian Spring Rolls
Adapted from Modern Vietnamese Cooking
Makes 10 rolls; serves 10 to 12
If you love our spring rolls made with pork and shrimp, give this vegetarian version a try. The filling, a mixture of tofu and vegetables with cellophane noodles, is similar to what you’d find in egg rolls. Served with our signature peanut sauce, these are just as good as our original spring rolls.
1 1/2 cups dried cellophane noodles
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1 1/2 teaspoons oil
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup shredded carrots
4 celery stalks, cut into matchsticks (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes, drained and thinly sliced
1/4 cup dried sliced tree ear mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and drained
3 1/2 cups shredded cabbage
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pinch ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup mung bean sprouts
1 1/2 cups fried tofu, thinly sliced
Twelve 12-inch round sheets