The Rose Garden Restaurant
A Fowl By Any Other Name
by Gordon Polatnick
I've got to tell you something.
The cat was in the bag and now he's trying
to get out.
In other words, something got on my chest
and I want to get it off.
The thing of it is I don't know very much
about Vietnamese cuisine.
In the movie Good Morning Vietnam, I think
some of the characters
ate some of it and seemed to enjoy themselves,
but they might have been acting.
When Sacha and I strolled into the Rose Garden
Restaurant (Lower Haight between
Fillmore and Steiner) I was praying that
the food would be excellent. Why? Because
the joint was not jumping. Other than people
at work we were the only souls in the place.
I love that. I love being the guy who discovers
the Vietnamese restaurant and puts
it on the map. Even though I've been hanging
around the Haight for five years, and
have tried out the vittles in every chop
shop around, I'd never noticed the Rose Garden.
"This place is nicely furnished, warm and
clean...that does it...I'm putting it on the map!"
I declared triumphantly under my breath as
we were shown to our seats. Sacha said,
"Huh?" rhetorically, then commented on all
the live greenery and fabulous fish swimming
in the background. Deciding on our next profound
pronouncements we absent-mindedly
began fingering the place mats. "You never
felt anything like it...a feast for the fingers
and the eyes as well." In my head I was already
writing a rave review based on the
spectacular place mats.
The waiter came by recommending number 50:
Five Spices BBQ Chicken ($5.25).
Sacha had a choice of seven vegetarian entrees:
assorted combinations of bean
cake, mixed vegetables, lemon grass, coconut
sauce and chili sauce. She zeroed
in on something special--Rau Xao Cari or
curried mixed vegetables ($4.75). Appetizer-
wise we were salivating for something unfried
and vegetarian in the spring roll family.
"BINGO," said the menu, "you've come to the
right place...we've got the whole mishbucha
here." Indeed they do--both fried and steamed;
either pork and shrimp, or vegetarian
($3.75). Tasty in their tangy dipping sauce,
our Goi Cuon Chay spring rolls lifted our spirits
and our expectations for the meal to come--higher
even than did the uncanny place mats.
The reason we're back to the damn place mats
is unfortunate to have to mention. The Rose
Garden Restaurant, if I'm to be the cartographer
of note, will become legendary more for
what's under the plate than what's on it.
Consider this: after being propelled into a happy
delirium by those spring rolls, my mouth
was so wet with anticipation for tasty BBQ chicken
that when the otherwise nice waiter placed
this plate of skimpy yet fatty fowl before me I
smashed him hard in the mouth. There wasn't
even any garnish. And what about the five
spices? The fatty chicken added insult to
injury by remaining flavorless.
Sacha calmed me down and helped the waiter
up. I picked at my meal thinking that chicken
isn't supposed to be this fatty. Duck is.
Admittedly, it didn't walk or talk like a duck, but it
tasted like one. Maybe it was duck. Bland,
but decent duck. I reconciled myself to the
assumption that the chef doesn't discriminate
between birds without feathers: A fowl is a
fowl is a fowl. I can live with that.
The curried vegetables sitting across the
table from me were chopped big and looked
fresh and crunchy. The carrots were
even shaped like pin wheels. Sacha was not going
to slug anybody. Then she tasted the dish.
It wasn't spicy enough to inspire violence,
just a kind of melancholy sigh--her salivary
juices were visibly retreating back into their
What to do about my rave review? How was I
going to pack 'em in this place based
on my response to our two dinner choices?
Green plants, live fish, friendly (forgiving)
service, the extended spring roll family,
an extensive lunch menu, and those remarkable
place mats were going to have to carry the
weight. Of course, if you take into account
the cat in the bag, and the something vis-a-vis
my chest (remember... I don't know squat
about Vietnamese cuisine)--maybe I should
have ordered number 26, Beef Fondued in
Broiled Vinegar ($8.50); or number 48, Catfish
Sautéed and Cooked in Clay Pot ($5.95);
or (forgive me) number 23, Char Broiled Pork
Balls ($8.50). Who knows, maybe that's
what they were eating in Good Morning Vietnam.
Rose Garden Restaurant 509-523 Haight Street,
415 621-. Mon.-Sat. 12:00-10:00PM, Sun. 5:00PM-10:00PM