With the opening of Shank & Bone in February, North Park finally got the contemporized Vietnamese restaurant its hipster heart craved. Taking over the space previously occupied by Japanese gastropub The Safe House, the new eatery employs the same bar, and keeps the draft beer flowing, with a few fresh updates to the industrial design.
2930 University Avenue, North Park
It's décor includes walls hung with non la (the famous conical hats worn by Vietnamese farmers), vintage motor scooters, a map of Saigon, and a large mural replicating the Shepard Fairey print, Revolution Woman (restaurant staff report that the artist licensed the work in exchange for a donation to the ACLU).
I first visited the colorful restaurant for lunch, and focused on its bánh mì. Served with pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, onions, and cucumber, these sandwiches are only served til 4pm, and go for $8. There's a lemongrass tofu option for vegetarians, and trứng chả chiên -a.k.a. ham and fried egg (Shank & Bone dishes are named both in English and Vietnamese). I went for one each of the roast pork (thịt nướng) and chicken (ga nuong) bánh mì.
These are about twice the cost of some killer bánh mì found a couple miles east in City Heights, and while the meat and vegetables appear to be of better quality, and the bread a little softer and wider than the standard baguette, they're not nearly as flavorful. The pork went over a little better than a bland chicken, but each wanted a little pâté, or at least mayo (I'm not sure whether the latter was left off my sandwiches intentionally or not).
That said, these sandwiches were about 75-percent on their way to being really good, so I'm hopeful the young restaurant will dial it in as it settles into its menu. There's a lot on there to dig into, including nicely balanced bún (vermicelli noodle bowls, with or without meat), rice plates (including "shaken" filet mignon), and bánh xèo "tacos" (which fold pork and shrimp inside a tortilla-like crepe).
I made a point of returning to check out Shank & Bone's signature dish: phở, with beef shank, flank, brisket, eye of round, oxtail, and bone marrow.
At $17, it's a hefty price tag for rice noodles in broth, but that's a lot of delicious sounding beef. You get the option of thin or flat rice noodles (my server recommended thin), and a garnish of bean sprouts, lemon, jalapeno and Thai basil.
Shank & Bone's clear beef broth sits in a pot for hours and hours with aromatic spices such as clove and star anise, plus fragrant oxtail and bone marrow. A server delivers pours it hot at your table, cooking thinly sliced strips of beef, and ensuring the noodles keep their texture all the way to your table. I enjoyed myself, sipping phở and watching the street life on University from my perch at a window counter.
However, the brisket fat chewed with more gristle than I prefer, and oxtail and marrow that had lured me to the signature phở had already given most of their flavor to the stock, so their bony inclusion didn't add enough value for the premium price tag. I'd rather spend 6 dollars less on phở with eye of round only — or vegan phở with tofu, carrot, mushrooms, and a trio of cruciferous vegetables in long-simmered veggie stock. If you want to go baller at Shank & Bone, aim for the surf and turf phở: lobster plus filet mignon.