DanVy Vu, co-owner and executive chef of Top Hatters Kitchen in San Leandro, remembers watching the spreads of food at her family get-togethers morph over time. In the years shortly after her family fled Vietnam as refugees and resettled in the Little Saigon area of Orange County, their meals consisted entirely of traditional Vietnamese fare.
But bit by bit, things started to change as her relatives picked up culinary influences from friends and coworkers. Her mother worked in a factory, where the workers shared potluck meals. She would bring home dishes for Vu to try, like Hungarian cabbage rolls. One aunt learned to make "church lady casserole" from coworkers. Another aunt started bringing sushi to family gatherings.
The menu at Top Hatters draws from diverse cultures, too, but in a way that's more curated than those family gatherings. Top Hatters is a fine-dining destination — with the stylish décor, service, and ambience to match — but at its core, the menu still retains the spirit of those family get-togethers, where the focus is good food regardless of its origin. Plates are meant to be shared and come in sizes ranging from bar snacks to family-sized platters. As with Vietnamese cuisine, food arrives as it's made, rather than in separate courses. "It's made of a lot of influences, but there's still this Vietnamese wash," Vu said.
Although the menu is undeniably Vietnamese-influenced, Vu won't bill Top Hatters as a Vietnamese restaurant. There are some traditional Vietnamese dishes on the menu, but unless you're familiar with those dishes, the only clues you'll find as to their origin are the condiments like "Viet herbs" or "Viet dipping sauce." One of those traditional dishes I tried was a bar snack of chopped clams with peanuts, Thai chili, and "Viet herbs" including rau ram, the herb Vu said is essential to that dish. A squeeze of lime on top added bright flavor, while the sesame rice crackers served on the side for scooping up the clams were crisp and mildly sweet. It was satisfying and refreshing, playful and elegant.
A couple other dishes remained fairly true to their roots with small twists. The grilled beef sausages served with fish sauce were nearly identical to bo la lot, which are beef sausages wrapped in betel leaves. Here, Vu wraps them in shiso leaves, which are easier to find. The beef was succulent and flavorful, while the shiso leaves added a hint of bitterness. The rice cake appetizer with pork floss and Chinese sausage, Vu said, was inspired by Vietnamese sticky rice — here, she crisps up the rice and adds a soft-boiled egg for a unique textural touch.
Other dishes draw from Vietnamese influences so subtly that many wouldn't recognize them. Take the salad with seasonal lettuce and shattered crepes, for instance. The lettuce was topped with a zippy preserved lemon dressing, while quinoa and potatoes added heft. On top were fragments of thin, toasty crepes that shattered upon biting into them. In keeping with Top Hatters' goals of minimizing food waste, they're made from the peasant rice that goes unused at the end of the day. But for some Vietnamese customers, Vu said, they're reminiscent of banh xeo, the rice flour crepes that are usually stuffed with pork and shrimp. "Vietnamese people love that one and recognize it," she said. "I'll have people [say], "Oh, I'm gonna bring my mom in; she's gotta taste this."
Some dishes are even more subtle, like the game hen platter, which was lightly coated with mint chutney and served with fresh corn and peasant rice. The game hen was juicy, and the grassy, herbal chutney was an ideal complement. Vu told me the chutney contains Vietnamese herbs like rau ram and sawtooth, which lent the dish an unusual flavor I couldn't get enough of.
Vu's menu also includes ingredients that are loved across many cultures. Her oxtail and grits bear some resemblance to the Southern dish, though with the orange gremolata, it also draws from the Italian roots of her co-owner and husband, Matthew Beavers. But oxtail is often featured in Vietnamese cooking, too, and Vu's version was fork-tender with a rich gravy.
Fried dough might be one of the most universally loved foods, and Top Hatters can certainly deliver palate-pleasing versions. Tissue bread has origins in Southeast Asia, but it's really just thin, flaky fried bread. Vu serves it with a soy dip and pickled fennel for a unique take. Then there's the savory ricotta donut, made with polenta for extra crisp around the edges, along with scallions, garlic, and optional (highly recommended) bacon. Though there's undeniable Italian influence, it's ultimately a savory fried dough.
Dessert, too, draws from a range of influences. The ricotta zeppole, a sweet, lemon zest-scented version of the savory donut, was extraordinary, especially with warm vanilla bean dipping sauce. The buttermilk panna cotta with citrus granita and tallow shortbread was showstopping, and worth a trip to Top Hatters in its own right. The creamy panna cotta was balanced by the bright, tangy, and flaky-textured granita, while crumbled tallow shortbread (made using the fat rendered from brisket in order to reduce food waste) added crispness. I recommend sharing it, and ordering a Vietnamese egg coffee all for yourself — it's a lusciously foamy, rich Vietnamese treat.
It's clear that while Vu has a lot of reverence for traditional Vietnamese dishes, she also enjoys playing with Vietnamese ingredients and cooking techniques in an organic way — and it works. Though Vu's concept is difficult to describe, she's confident in her style. "Investors and even food critics want to know, 'What is your concept?' They want that two-minute elevator pitch, and I really don't have one. ... Maybe I just have an identity crisis. I'm just embracing it.
"I am Vietnamese, I cook Vietnamese food ... but I don't want to always say that that's the direction I'm going."
It's the kind of culinary freedom that Vu felt she couldn't find back home. "In Little Saigon, in Orange County, food did not change," Vu said. "And there's amazing Vietnamese food there, but authenticity was the marker of a good restaurant — so anyone who tried to do anything different, it was frowned upon. With me doing this in the Bay Area, I felt really safe," Vu said.
When I interviewed Vu, she told me her mother was planning to visit the restaurant the next day with a few Vietnamese friends in tow. She was worried how they would react to her nontraditional approach.
Vu reported back: "Well, they ate everything and looked like they were having a good time
"Compliments don't come easy with my mom, so I have to pick up indirect cues," Vu said. "She has never directly told me she liked the doughnuts, but at the end of the meal, she said, 'Don't forget the doughnuts.' That's probably the most I will get."
You should definitely order the doughnuts — sweet or savory — too.