The Temple Club Does Amazing Everyday Vietnamese Food

At his East Oakland restaurant, Geoffrey Deetz cooks food that everyday Vietnamese eat, though lots of those dishes are unknown to Americans.


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Mi quang phu chien.

Photo by Lori Eanes

A taxi had taken us to an intersection of District 5 backstreets in Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known as Saigon. A man wearing shorts and a plaid short-sleeved shirt was stirring ingredients into an enormous wok. Squatting on the ground near him, his assistant, wielding a large cleaver, was chopping up crabs that he had shaken from a burlap bag freshly hauled from the market. Within a matter of minutes, we were sitting around the corner on the kind of low plastic stools you find in a daycare center, eating steaming-hot tamarind crab, accompanied by crunchy, soft baguettes and ice-cold Heineken beer.

Robin and I never would have found this vendor on our own. We were taken there by Geoffrey Deetz, who generously hung out with us during our stay and with whom we’d spent the day on a street-food tour of Saigon. We started in the sprawling Ban Thanh Market, where Deetz, a towering gentle giant, bantered with purveyors, mostly women, in fluent Vietnamese. Then we followed him and his girlfriend, Quynh Nhu, through mazes of ever-narrowing alleys, sampling savory dollar-size bun khot pancakes; corn milk; bun thit nuong, noodles with imperial rolls, barbecued pork, herbs, and greens, drenched in fish sauce; xoi ga, sticky rice topped with shredded chicken, chicken livers, gizzards, and fried shallots. At every stop, Deetz explained the ingredients and cooking techniques, and at the crab stand, he tasted the stir-fry in process and discussed—again in rapid-fire Vietnamese—the proper balance of flavors.

It was 2010. Deetz had been in the country for a decade. He operated his own restaurants, including the Black Cat Café and Zombie BBQ, oversaw lunch programs at schools for the kids of foreign nationals, and acted as an informal point person for writers and TV food personalities, including chef Gordon Ramsey. We connected with him through travel writer David Farley, but we could have met him years earlier back home: He started the popular restaurant Spettro on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland and worked as a chef at the Gulf Coast Oyster Bar, where he cooked alongside a crew of Vietnamese and ate a life-changing chicken banh mi that was the gateway bite to the fascination that eventually took him to Vietnam.

In August 2015, Deetz put together a multicourse Vietnamese pop-up dinner at Stella Nonna in Albany. He said he was thinking about moving back to the East Bay. By September 2017 he had settled his family—wife Nhu and two sons—in Alameda, and staged a series of pop-ups that paved the way for the October opening of The Temple Club, his own Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood, near Taqueria Sinaloa and the EastSide Arts Alliance.

When Robin and I made two dinner visits in November, The Temple Club had been discovered, especially by the local Vietnamese community, and was experiencing the challenges of early success—customers lining up on the sidewalk, servers having a hard time keeping up, and menu items running short. We avoided those pitfalls by making early evening reservations and nabbing the card table in the corner next to the front door, which affords a great view of the space previously occupied by the Vietnamese Sea Blue Café and the Bakeshop Oakland. On one wall a mural depicts Vietnamese peasants, mostly women, engaged in farming and fishing. On the other side of the room, above a section of faux exterior wall with shutters, is a replica of an old billboard advertising pho with an image poached from Laughing Cow, the processed cheese that’s big in Vietnam. With an open kitchen at the back of the high-ceilinged downstairs dining room and a loft with additional seating, the restaurant feels both roomy and intimate.

 

Photo by Lori Eanes

Tom chien con.

In these casual surroundings, Deetz is cooking what he describes as “food that everyday Vietnamese eat,” which includes a lot of dishes that “have not been served here” in the United States. He’s not trying to “move Vietnamese forward by trying to put new twists on the food,” he said, although Deetz’s Food Network winning dish Pho Bo Chua features corned-beef brisket, and an otherwise straightforward cheesecake becomes musky-sweet from the notorious “stinky fruit” durian. The sour beef broth pho, like some other dishes, comes in both ample “street bowl” ($7) and bountiful “American bowl” ($13) sizes and was fine. The durian cheesecake was a magical revelation.

Of the three starters and four entrées we tried, all manifested Deetz’s obsessiveness with ingredients—he plunders local Asian markets for young green rice flakes, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), water celery, and banana flowers—and with how and why they are used in specific dishes. Those rice flakes coat butterflied shrimp before they’re perfectly deep-fried. The rau ram and banana flours are tossed with poached pig ears, mint, peanuts, and spicy fish sauce in goi tai heo (which, like many dishes, can be made vegetarian).

Some people will be squeamish about some preparations, such as the rich pork-liver-sesame dipping sauce that comes with goi cuon nem chua, spring rolls filled with grilled sour pork and pig ear sausage, sesame leaf, and rice noodles. But for every recipe with jellyfish, frog legs, or pork blood cake, there are two or three with chicken, pork, rockfish, red snapper, mussels, pumpkin, eggplant, or mushrooms. And with about 15 dishes on the menu—with no duplication of broths and a staggering variety of house-made sauces (honey-chili, lime-pepper, spicy fish, ginger fish, sesame-preserved fish, fish-peanut)—there’s no shortage of choices. Plus, Deetz subs dishes in and out weekly as he mines the everyday food traditions of Vietnam’s diverse regions, from the hill country and highlands to the beaches and major cities. Diners can choose a beautifully executed standard such as mi quang phu chime, wide noodles with shrimp, pork, shallots, annatto oil, crushed peanuts, and herbs, arriving with an oversize toasted sesame chip to be broken up into the bowl and stirred in with fish sauce. Or they can experiment with ca kiem um chuoi nghe, swordfish braised with tomatoes, shallots, fresh turmeric, with chunks of starchy green banana with the edible peel still on. One night, in addition to flan, chocolate mousse, durian cheesecake, and durian ice cream, desserts included an icy “soup” with lotus seeds bobbing in the honey-sweetened, gingery liquid.

The beverage menu highlights fresh juices such as coconut, pineapple, honeydew, carrot, cucumber, strawberry, and orange, as well as Vietnamese hot or iced coffee and Thai iced tea. But until The Temple Club gets its alcoholic beverage license, you’ll need to bring your own beer or wine from home or run out to one of the several liquor stores on 23rd Avenue. And cold beer is highly recommended during Dungeness season, when, if you’re lucky, Deetz will be stepping forth from the back roads of our memories and stirring his own giant woks of tamarind crab.

The Temple Club

Vietnamese. 2307 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-479-3680. Starters $8-$12, entrées $12-$15, desserts $6-$7, beverages $2-$6. Serves lunch Wed.-Sat. noon-3 p.m., dinner Tue.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. TempleClubOakland.com

CC ☎  $$-$$$

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