SF’s Darren’s Café – Where Pancakes Meet Pho

Early on a Sunday morning there weren’t many customers in Darren’s Café. (Located on Fisherman’s Wharf between tacky gift shops this isn’t where locals hangout and it was too early for tourists to be up.) One local who seemed to know the staff was finishing paying his bill and started out the door, “zai jian” he called back to the waitress and she returned the farewell “zai jian”. Chinese? As I listened closer the waitresses and cooks were indeed speaking Mandarin to each other.

We first came to Darren’s the week before, drawn by its #1 ranking on Yelp for best pho in San Francisco. At the time I was hesitant to believe that this classic diner-looking place could make a descent bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It’s a specialty that requires time and care when making the flavorful stock. The pho restaurants here in the DC area, generally found in suburban strip malls, dedicate the menu to pho, 15 different selections of beef part combinations – well done brisket, flank steak and soft tendon for example. A chicken choice in usually thrown in to appeal to the occasional US born customer.  Darren’s menu, however, didn’t even mention the word pho, just one kind of beef noodle soup. But that’s really all they needed. Everything about the soup was done right, fragrant and beefy broth, tender slices of beef, perfectly cooked thin rice noodles, put together just before serving and accompanied by the classic bean sprouts, Thai basil and lime.

Impressed with the bowl of pho, we returned the next week to find out if they could make a decent breakfast. The menu had all the usual traditional American breakfast combinations – nothing too fancy, but far outnumbering the noodle soup choices. I ordered my classic favorite, pancakes and eggs over easy. Don ordered a healthy vegetable egg white omelet with pan fried potatoes and dry toast. Again, everything done right, including the potatoes, hot and crispy on the outside without being mushy. Granted, they won’t win any awards for best breakfast (SF is a great breakfast town) but for good food in a simple setting this Chinese run establishment gets the classics right.

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