The Slanted Door may have been dark for nearly two years, but rest assured, Charles Phan never left his hometown of San Francisco. Apparently, the chef has been rattling around his 10,000-square-foot commissary kitchen in the Mission, where he’s been mastering bread. Not pandemic sourdough like the rest of us amateurs, but rather crisp, light, perfect banh mi rolls, like the kind he fell in love with in Vietnam. And now, in a truly delightful plot twist, before reopening his acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant in the Ferry Building, he’s throwing open a sandwich shop in the Mission instead. No seating. No chips. Just sandwiches. Okay, and obviously iced coffee. But perhaps these are the banh mi that have been missing from the sandwich scene in San Francisco — and you know this town loves a big sandwich.
The new sandwich shop, named Chuck’s Takeaway, is located on the corner 18th and Capp, across from Whiz Burger, and slated to open in February. Phan says he’s been obsessed with bread and sandwiches long before they became pandemic trends. Recall, Phan was born in Vietnam, but his family moved to Guam before the Fall of Saigon, and he really grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. So when he was finally able to return to Vietnam in 1992, he got his first taste of true Vietnamese banh mi. “You know how when you’re happy everything just tastes better?” the chef muses. In his opinion, the main difference between Vietnamese sandwiches and American counterparts is the bread, which has a crisp exterior and fluffy interior — not too soft, not a jaw workout, never dry and crumbly. “I thought, ‘I gotta learn to make this bread,’” he says. And he’s been chasing the recipe for years, sometimes literally while clinging to the back of a motorbike taxi. And now, he thinks he’s got it.
Chuck’s Takeaway will serve a simple menu of about half a dozen sandwiches, which Phan developed together with chef Dong Choi. They’re not traditional or even exclusively banh mi: The CP Number Three is two types of pork sausage, one emulsified and one a packed terrine — and there’s an ongoing argument about whether or not to include chicken liver pate. A veggie version features eggplant, yuba, and rich mushroom pate. Then Phan says “maybe meatballs,” again meaning pork, pounded instead of ground for bounce. The fish ’wich will likely be open-faced smoked tuna to start but may switch to sardines, cleaned so tidily they look like they came from a can.
There is a Japanese-style egg salad sandwich on milk bread, starring Slanted Door sesame mayo and soft-on-soft textures. And hardly least, a braised beef belly situation, rich with fat slicking the bun and bright with gremolata sprinkled over the top. Each of the sandwiches will cost $15, and before anyone starts griping about cost, to be clear every element from the bun to the mayo is housemade.
Phan prefers his pickles on the side, so rather than the usual julienned carrots inside the sandwich, pickled seasonal vegetables like romanesco come set apart. He also doesn’t feel like making chips, so no chips, he says. But there is a beautiful fresh mandarin juice soda, as well as Vietnamese iced coffee, with the right kind of beans specially sourced by Saint Frank.
The shop will be a straightforward storefront tagged onto the front of his commissary kitchen, with a single glass door and a single counter, initially welcoming walk-ins and with online ordering and delivery options to come. Illuminated shelves on the right will display a few retail items, including crunchy chile oil and fermented hot sauce, and they might add a standing counter on the left to belly up with a banh mi. Diners may never see it, but further back in the recesses of the kitchen, this is where 200-gallon vats of chicken broth simmer away, and Phan’s brother still operates the family’s sewing company next door. As a teenager, Phan bussed over to Mission High School, a straight walk along 18th. The Phan family has been in this neighborhood for a long time.
Of course, longtime fans will spot that the sandwich shop is only two blocks from the original location where Slanted Door opened on Valencia Street in 1995. Does Phan feel nostalgic about reopening a restaurant presence in the heart of the Mission? “Not really,” Phan says, deadpan. “We never left.” And never fear, after re-upping his lease with the Ferry Building, he did confirm that with that the great Slanted Door will be back, hopefully in fall 2022.