The plan was to pick up an order from Chuck’s Takeaway and bring it home for my partner and I to share. But those beautifully stuffed sandos, nestled like baby birds in their to-go containers, taunt me from the passenger seat. “Pull over,” they whisper. “Just give us a taste.”
Not yet even halfway home, I give in. I pull over to the curb and extract the sandwiches one by one: The wild Spanish mackerel with its layering of tomato sauce, shallot mayo, soft herbs, and jalapeño; the veggie wurster hall stacked with roasted eggplant, yuba cha, shallot mayo, mushroom pâté, herbs, cucumber, and jalapeño; Chuck’s egg salad on milk bread with mustardy mayo, celery, and chives.
The last one will be my first victim, I decide, lifting it from its container and taking a bite. I chew slowly as the soft, crust-free milk bread and chive-dusted egg salad melt together into a savory pudding. The chives are light, the celery’s crunch low-key, the egg salad tangy and silky. I devour it in less than five minutes then carefully reposition the container’s cover and set it gently back in the bag. “He’ll never even notice,” the sandwiches assure me as I peel away.
The veggie wurster hall sandwich at Chuck's Takeaway.(Patricia Chang)
On its face, Chuck’s Takeaway is just a sandwich shop on one of the Mission’s less beautified blocks. The former storage space is simple and a little irreverent—on one wall hangs a gallery of dog portraits by artist Judy North (which include, it is rumored, the likeness of a Green Day band member’s pooch), on the other built-in wooden shelves hawk jars of Wo Hing General Store chile oils and preserved lemons, ceramics by local artists, and cookbooks.
But underneath, the story of Chuck’s Takeaway could fill volumes. Those Wo Hing General Store condiments, they’re named for the small grocery the proprietor’s father once owned in Vietnam. Next door, the proprietor’s brother operates the sewing company the family has run since the 1980s, not long after the refugees from Da Lat arrived in the U.S.
The proprietor is, of course, Charles Phan and he’s part of the story too: a James Beard Award–winning chef of the James Beard Award–winning Vietnamese restaurant The Slanted Door—not to mention the chef/owner of Out the Door, Hard Water, UC Berkeley’s Rice & Bones, and several other now-defunct and upcoming projects.
Phan, the first to introduce San Francisco’s culinary scene to elevated, exquisite Vietnamese food, has been an innovator since first opening The Slanted Door in 1995. He’s not afraid to push his own boundaries as a chef and restaurateur, but he’s careful and studied; a perfectionist. So although Phan had dabbled with banh mi in the past, the Vietnamese staple never became a regular part of his repertoire because his attempts to recreate the classic chewy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside Vietnamese baguette never quite gave him the texture he desired.
Yum cha for the veggie wurster hall is made in house, along with everything else on Chuck's menu.(Patricia Chang)
After years of imagining the elusive baguette, Phan met a baker in Vietnam in 2015 who agreed to teach him his method. He then re-met Phan in 2018 after the SF chef’s phone crashed and destroyed all the records of their first lesson, and re-re-met him when Phan couldn’t replicate the recipe in the SF climate. After months of tinkering, Phan and his team finally got it right. Chuck's Takeaway opened its doors in February.
While the rolls at the shop are flawless takes on the traditional, the sandwiches themselves are not exactly your typical banh mi. There are six altogether, including mom’s meatballs made with pork meatballs, tomato sauce and cilantro, and the braised beef belly and salsa verde Jo Jo’s bolito. Phan expects to rotate in new sandwiches now and again to keep the menu fresh.
House-made spritzers, as well as Vietnamese coffee, tea, and fresh-baked cookies round out the menu. Everything from the mayo to the pickled veggies that come on the side of each sandwich is made in house and, when possible, organically sourced—which explains the somewhat hefty $16 per sandwich price tag.
Back in the car, I sip my delicately sweet, almondy-citrus-blossomy orgeat spritzer, ignoring the siren call of my sandwiches. At home, I present the haul to my partner, who oohs and ahs with appropriate reverence. When I pull out Chuck’s egg salad, he stops and peers into the container.
“Couldn’t make it home, huh?” he says without surprise; this isn’t my first driver’s seat rendezvous with takeaway meant for us both. I smile sheepishly and tear off a mouthful of crusty baguette.
// Chuck's Takeaway, 3332 18th St. (Mission), chuckstakeaway.com
The wild Spanish mackerel sandwich comes via a perfect, Vietnamese-style baguette.(Patricia Chang)