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Read up on some of 2014’s most-loved cookbooks, tested and reviewed by the one and only Food52 community.
Although I have never eaten at the restaurant, I was eager to cook from The Slanted Door cookbook. I’ve met Chef Phan twice at the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival and have enjoyed delicious bites of his cooking -- one year an incomparable (although not Asian) fried chicken, and this past year, his take on the classic Vietnamese dish chả cá, marinated and fried fish served with rice noodles and spiced with tumeric and dill. So when Phan's cookbook was posted as a Community Pick contender for this year’s Piglet, I jumped at the chance to review it.
The Slanted Door is styled and designed well and full of beautiful photographs, which makes it as pleasurable to read as it is cook and eat from. The book, presented in three acts, tells the story of the restaurant based on each location it's had, from its inception in 1995 until today. Phan tells the story of his family’s arrival in San Francisco in the 1970s as boat refugees from Vietnam. It’s easy to like the chef, the tireless eldest of six children, who worked through high school to help his family make ends meet. As I read, I found myself appreciating his entrepreneurial spirit -- and wanting him to succeed.
Each section is filled with recipes for traditional Vietnamese fare (the kind Phan grew up eating), more modern dishes that use local ingredients, and those that are just plain delicious -- like his fried chicken. For purposes of this review, I decided to stick with more traditional recipes -- the ones that have been customer favorites at the restaurant since the beginning and are still on the menu today.
More: Feeling inspired? Make this Vietnamese rice noodle salad tonight.
Knowing that many dishes would likely include ingredients that were also recipes, I thoroughly read through the book and started my testing journey by picking dishes that included the same sub-recipes as ingredients. For example, when I made shallot oil for his Spring Rolls (which he credits as the origin for the entire Slanted Door family of restaurants), I used the leftover fried shallots to make his Pork and Shrimp Wontons with Spicy Chile Oil next. For the record, the Spring Rolls do not disappoint. I can see why he believed he could build a restaurant around them. I recommend everyone make shallot aioli, slather your spring rolls with it, and give thanks to Charles Phan and his mom, just before devouring. They are that good.
More: The Slanted Door's Clams with Lime-Butter Sauce is sure to brighten your day.
Other highlights from testing include his Chicken Watercress Soup, Braised Oxtail Stew, and Caramelized Claypot Chicken. Cleansing and slightly peppery from the watercress, the Chicken Watercress Soup is the perfect contrast to the flavor and texture of the chicken meatballs. As a bonus, his recipe for chicken stock is genius (Do you hear that, Kristen Miglore?) and unlike any that I’ve tried before: It calls for only roasted ginger, onion, a touch of brown sugar, and bony chicken parts, and it's fragrant, rich, and silky.
The Braised Oxtail Stew, which I recommend for weekend cooking, is complex and spicy -- a hearty meal that is even better on the second and third day. For weeknight cooking, once you make the caramel sauce, Phan’s Caramelized Chicken Claypot is a cinch to pull together and tastes better than most meals I can put out in less than 25 minutes.
Phan’s recipes are clear and easy to follow and, for the most part, are delicious and satisfying. However, my high hopes for his Vegetarian Crêpes were not met, as the time spent prepping the filling, plus my novice crêpe-making ability, did not justify the result. I was similarly frustrated by the level of effort required for the “Basics” section in the back of the book. These sub-recipes, such as chicken stock, peanut sauce, and caramel sauce, are not scaled to the recipes throughout the rest of the book. This means extra work for the cook to halve and divide the "Basics" recipes where needed.
In relation to the slew of other fantastic recipes in The Slanted Door, these were only minor setbacks. In my mind, the mark of a good cookbook is that you keep coming back to it -- and I'm incredibly eager to continue cooking my way though this one. I have no doubt that many of these dishes will become part of my family's regular rotation. That's why I'm so excited to eat at Phan's restaurant when I travel to San Francisco this May. Returning home will be a little bit easier knowing that I can continue to enjoy his wonderful food in the comfort of my own kitchen.
First photo by Mark Weinberg; spring roll photo by Linda Pugliese; peanut sauce photo by Phoebe Lapine