In our era of "Instagrammable" food and incessant social media bragging, a chef at a Richmond District Vietnamese restaurant decided to create an over-the-top stunt dish around the holidays last year, figuring they might sell a few and get some free marketing and that'd be it. Instead, the dish took off, and despite its $72 pricetag became the most popular thing on the menu.
The Chronicle's Soleil Ho tells the tale of Lily, the Vietnamese restaurant that opened last fall on Clement Street, mid-pandemic, spending its first months mostly just doing takeout food. Chef Rob Lam decided to add crab fried rice to the menu when Dungeness season began, but since it's not a Vietnamese dish and he figured it would just be a temporary thing for the holidays, he decided to push the envelope.
As he tells Ho, "The premise was, let’s do something so over-the-top and bougie. We called it the #1 douchebag fried rice."
That dish, actually called #1 Dac Biet Fried Rice on the menu (dac biet meaning "special" or "the works"), was a study in modern-times, extra-douchey luxury stuff — perfectly fried jasmine rice was mixed with three kinds of crab, including Dungeness, red king crab, and snow crab; and it was topped with black truffle XO sauce, pieces of grilled A4 Miyazaki Wagyu sirloin sourced from a high-end ranch whose cows are fed a diet of olives, two kinds of caviar, pieces of uni, and two Jidori egg yolks.
But instead of selling two or three of these $72 fried rice dishes a night to would-be influencers and Instagram food-over-sharers, the dish went locally viral. Lam tells the Chronicle that they were selling 20 or 25 a night, and the intricacies of the crab stock involved and the rest of the prep work was driving his cooks mad. Over seven months, the restaurant sounds like it went through at least a whole cow and thousands of dollars in caviar bills — and Lam said the dish didn't even make a profit, due to all the ingredients and labor.
Also, this was never meant to be a centerpiece of Lam's menu, even though he's a fan of creative experiments — this veered too far from Vietnamese influences, not to mention it wasn't really supposed to be part of Lily's brand.
Lam killed the dish at the end of June, and the restaurant posted a message announcing its death saying "We never meant for this to take off! This dish isn’t even Vietnamese!!!"
It's just another example of the willingness of San Franciscans to spend lots of money on food — and the ongoing draw of stunt dishes, because you not only get a meal, you get social media cachet out of it, if that's important to you.
The Bay Area is still home to a $50 burger that's topped with five ounces of Australian black truffle and Époisses cheese — that's at Selby's in Atherton, the restaurant from the Spruce folks which is reopening September 7. And at Mastro's steak house in Union Square, you can spend $175 on an American wagyu tomahawk steak, or 10 ounces of Japanese wagyu.
But we're at least past the days of $10,000 martinis with diamonds in them. Hopefully.
Photo courtesy of Lily