But two decades later, Phan's Slanted Door restaurant — named the nation's most outstanding restaurant this year by the James Beard Foundation — continues to pack in crowds eager to chow down on dishes like his famous shaking beef, spring rolls and broken rice.
Now, Phan has a new cookbook, "The Slanted Door," that gathers those recipes, as well as the stories behind the restaurant's sometimes turbulent history.
The restaurant opened in San Francisco's Mission District in 1995 (there really was a slightly off-centre door, hence the name), but had to move to a waterfront location after running into permit problems. Then came lease issues, prompting the bold leap to becoming a flagship tenant of the then-newly renovated Ferry Building, today a hugely popular place but at the time, the early 2000s, very much an unknown.
The places changed, but the philosophy remained the same — cook authentic dishes using the highest quality ingredients.
"I've always believed food has a story," Phan says. "Cooking is a craft. It's like calligraphy. There's a certain history and you translate that history. You don't just make stuff up."
So, if he's researching a dish from Central Vietnam, he'll visit and try it at several different food stands to get to know the ingredients and be able to replicate the preparation for authenticity. "I want food to be like mining the history and culture of a particular place," he says.
There are Asian classics on the menu, like caramelized chicken clay pot, as well as dishes that blend Western and Eastern styles, like the perennially popular take on fried chicken that borrows techniques from Southern fried chicken and Peking duck.
Phan also is a big fan of bourbon, a passion that has inspired his latest venture, a planned Cajun bar in San Francisco. Since opening the original Slanted Door, the family has added several restaurants, including Hard Water, a whiskey bar, and the Out the Door casual dining restaurant.
In the book, Phan fills in his background as the son of Chinese parents who moved to Vietnam after the communist revolution in China only to have to flee Vietnam in 1975. His dad, a serial entrepreneur, worked as a janitor for a while in a San Francisco restaurant and Phan's first job was as a bartender's assistant and dish washer.
The oldest of six children, Phan often cooked for his siblings, but it wasn't until he had studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked in his family's garment business, which later folded, and at a software firm, which also went bust, that he started to cook professionally, first for friends, then to help a friend's mother who was running a truck stop cafe in a San Francisco suburb.
That all led to the 1995 opening of The Slanted Door, a venture financed partly by loans, partly by his family and partly by maxing out more than a dozen credit cards. That's a nail-biting scenario that has played out a few times as the restaurant has weathered lost leases and other problems, something Phan writes about frankly in hopes of providing pointers to fledgling restaurateurs.
"I'm hoping that people will see that sometimes you just got to close your eyes, assume that you wet your hair and there's enough water for washing it."
The restaurant has a loyal following among locals and visitors. Phan writes with humour about the time the hostess called him at home on a Sunday to say, "You'd better come in, the president is here."
"The president of what?" asked a confused Phan. The United States, it turned out; Bill Clinton had stopped by.
Slanted Door combines new and old, comfort and quality, an unusual combination that Phan is uniquely suited to pull off, says fellow chef Roy Yamaguchi, known for helping develop Hawaiian regional cuisine.
"A lot of people, maybe their personality isn't completely aligned with what they do as far as their restaurants go," says Yamaguchi. "Charles, his personality really comes through in his restaurant."
The Slanted Door: http://www.slanteddoor.com/store
GINGER BEEF VERMICELLI
Start to finish: 20 minutes
6 ounces bavette or flank steak, thinly sliced on the diagonal
4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Pinch of kosher salt
Ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
2 teaspoons fish sauce
3 cups cooked rice vermicelli
Lettuce, torn, to serve
Roasted, unsalted peanuts
In a medium bowl, combine the beef slices, 1 tablespoon of the oil, the cornstarch, salt and a few grinds of pepper. Use your hands to toss together, then set aside.
Heat a wok or skillet over medium-high heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil and heat until shimmering. Add half the beef and cook, stirring, until the beef is browned, about a minute. Add half the garlic, half the ginger and half the fish sauce and continue cooking until the beef is cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining oil, beef, garlic, ginger and fish sauce.
On each serving plate, mound vermicelli and lettuce, then spoon the beef over them. Sprinkle with peanuts and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 770 calories; 360 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories); 40 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 40 mg cholesterol; 73 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 30 g protein; 840 mg sodium.
(Recipe adapted from Charles Phan's "The Slanted Door," Ten Speed Press, 2014)
Michelle Locke tweets at https://twitter.com/Locke_MichelleSuggest a correction