Golden Star: Patrician Name, Plebian Pho

Chinatown Diaries chronicles one man’s effort to eat at every restaurant and food shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, surveying the neighborhood block by block, rice plate by rice plate. Maximum entree price permitted: $10. (Search the interactive map of restaurants covered here.)

The man taking names from the arc of would-be diners outside the door of Golden Star Vietnamese Restaurant paused to look us up and down. “I think your name is ‘Men,'” he said. “‘Three men.'”

He gave us an affable smirk, glanced over the crowd, and then called out in Cantonese to a pair of older men standing to our right. One lurched toward him, eager to be seated, while the other, the hairless dome of his head elevated three inches by a trucker hat, rested back on his heels and raised his eyebrows. Without removing the cigarette from his lips, he wagged the white plastic holder it was lodged in. Unh-unh. His friend paused, and a quick discussion with the host followed. A couple of white men in striped business shirts and office pants were summoned in their stead.

Not long after, the host opened the door. “Three men?” he called out. And we threaded our way through the chairs and conversations to our spot.

Golden Star, located across the alley from Pourtsmouth Square, is one of Chinatown’s three golden Vietnamese restaurants. (The other two are Golden Flower and Golden King.) The first two have been around as long as I’ve been eating pho, and Chowhounders have debated their merits for as long as I’ve been reading Chowhound. Of the three, the decor at Golden Star is the most perfunctory — white walls, round mirrors, wood-simulacrum tables — and Cantonese-speaking tables alternate with groups of English-speaking office workers.

In addition to the standard pho, bun, and grilled meats, accented with Southern Vietnamese canh chua soups you don’t see many other places, the menu skews Chinese, with the same chow fun and stir-fried meats you’d order just around the corner. And in fact, the seafood chow fun one of the three men at my table ordered wasn’t bad, with wok smoke inscribed onto the noodles and fat pink spirals of shrimp that gave a juicy pop when we bit them off their tails.

The restaurant’s bun with lemongrass chicken wasn’t half bad, either, the marinade on the meat lightly sweet, and bean-sprout spikes and tendrils of lettuce exploding from the bowl. The master combo pho, though? It was hardly golden. While slices of tendon had softened into pure gelatin, book tripe kept its scratchy crunch, and paper-thin strips of brisket and flank barely held entropy at bay, the noodles dissolved into a mass of inch-long filaments within a matter or minutes, and the broth was serviceable and no better.

Golden Star, however, is clearly used to the requirements of a Thursday lunch break: We three men left within 45 minutes, and that because we lingered to talk well after plates had emptied and soup had cooled.

Golden Star: 11 Walter U. Lum Pl. (at Clay), (415) 398-1215.