What, another Vietnamese resto review? But wait – it’s not just any Vietnamese place… it’s Sunflower! Risen again from its oh-too-long hibernation!
We’ve been going to Sunflower off and on for about 12 years now. Originally opened in 1998, it is well-known for having one kitchen for two restaurants that straddle Valencia and 16th Streets. The one on 16th was the more casual branch – a little more brightly lit, tiny, and a draw for anyone who needed a quick Vietnamese fix before a movie at the Roxie.
The branch on Valencia was perhaps the more “grown-up” version, with (really old) carpeting, prints on the walls, a more somber palette, and considerably larger. Sunflower on Valencia was our go-to, in large part because of a sassy Asian waiter whose name is now escaping me (Henry, Harry?), but his baby-faced smile and cheerful patter was the pleasant backdrop for our favorite dishes. However, both outlets closed mysteriously in 2014 – supposedly to remodel (and really, not a moment too soon). In 2015 the one on 16th reopened, seemingly unchanged, and signs on the Valencia joint appeared, promising to “Open Soon!” Alas, they kept us breathlessly waiting – for two more years. Finally, in April 2017 Valencia re-opened to very little fanfare.
A little sleeker, cleaner inside, and thank god that carpet is gone…
We had to try all of our stand-bys, just to see if they still had the stuff. For my main, I ordered the thit bo luc lac, or shaking beef…
The dish gets its name from the motion of the skillet required to cook meat properly, constantly moving over the flame so it doesn’t stick. Sunflower’s version isn’t the most authentic – French fries? Come on! Typical accompaniments are watercress, tomatoes, and/or a lime-and-black pepper dipping sauce. But you’ll never hear me complain about fries, unless they’re poorly done, and these were not. Besides, what matters in this dish is the beef, and this is one of the better renditions of bo luc lac I’ve had. Super tender, juicy, deeply flavored with a caramel/saltiness, and just a hint of spice. Kind of swoon-worthy. And fries are always in season.
We shared a humongous platter of garlic noodles …
Vietnamese garlic noodles hold their own in the pantheon of Asian Noodles You Must Eat. The umami factor of Sunflower ‘s is very high – garlicky, sweet, salty, plus springy-textured and eggy…. They’re one of my guiltiest pleasures.
The BF got his standard: Bún Thịt Nuớng with cha gio, or grilled pork over vermicelli noodles, topped with Imperial rolls.
A bowlful of cool rice noodles are the bed for deliciously crunchy fried rolls stuffed with more noodles and ground pork, shredded, slightly pickled carrots, and gorgeous charred pork. The whole thing is bathed in nuoc cham – that quintessential Vietnamese elixir of fish sauce, citrus and sugar – and squirted with Sriracha, if you like. I do think Sunflower’s is the BF’s favorite version of this dish.
I had a glass of ***horrors*** – house chardonnay! Unfortunately, Sunflower’s wine “list” is limited to a chard and a cab (and beer.) But it looked so cool and inviting on someone else’s table, and for once I didn’t find it buttery or oaky.
On our second visit, we shared a combo appetizer which consisted of grilled lemongrass pork, grilled shrimp, rice noodles, imperial rolls, basil, lettuce, mint, daikon, carrots, etc. for wraps, and disks of rice paper, set in this cute little contraption I’d never seen before. One compartment holds the rice paper disks and the other has warm water in it. You dip your paper in to the water and spin it until it just gets bendy enough to make a wrap. Ingenious!
Essentially, we had deconstructed bun thit nuong, reconstructed into make-your-own rolls. All very tasty!
We also got an order of som tum that sadly wasn’t even one tiny bit spicy. We added sriracha, which also isn’t very spicy, but I still could have eaten that salad for days.
The BF got an order of “tender grilled beef” which also came with rice paper, greens, and mint. Lemon-grassy and very fresh tasting. They really know how to char meat here.
I’ve learned that Sunflower has a sister spot in Potrero Hill but I’ve never been. Also, during the Mission closures, the same team debuted Indochine, a vegan Asian restaurant, right next door at 508 Valencia. But for my money, Sunflower hits the spot every time and still screams anti-gentrification.
Glad you’re back…
3111 16th St., San Francisco, CA 94103
506 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94103