"So we only have 14 ways of beef to go?"
We're on stop nine of a 13-restaurant crawl through the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, which since the 1970s has been home to an active and entrepreneurial Vietnamese community. Though you can find good pho in Chinatown and some other neighborhoods, Dorchester, just down the Red Line, beats them all on density of restaurants and depth of options within them. And if you're in Boston and have at least a passing interest in local fare beyond lobster rolls and chowder, a trip to Dorchester belongs at the top of your list.
Though that thought doesn't help ease the pain as we settle into our tenth full meal of the afternoon.
With about a dozen Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries along a mile-long stretch of Dorchester Avenue, you can indeed visit them all in a day, though after doing so I can't exactly recommend it. With all its fresh herbs and vinegary condiments, Vietnamese food can sure seem light, but after slurping 10 bowls of pho, my blood was diluted to 30% beef broth and I was burping star anise for days.
Which is why I've assembled an abbreviated guide to the neighborhood's greatest hits that you can take down in a day trip without shooting your sodium levels to Hanoi. Of course, I'm not a local, and my time in Dorchester was limited, so I won't pretend this is anything close to comprehensive. What I can say is that some restaurants are absolute must-visits while others are quite easy to skip. The neighborhood's best bowl of pho was just the beginning. Here are all the other wonderful things worth eating.
Perfect Banh Mi: Banh Mi Ba Le
What does it take for a sandwich to be the best bite of food you eat from 38 restaurants in four days?
Maybe it's the homemade rice flour baguette, so light it makes the French stuff seem like pumpernickel. Maybe it's the pitch-perfect pâté with enough porky funk to make you stop and take notice. Or maybe it's the ample helping of pickled daikon and crunchy cilantro stems that freshen up every bite and balance out that generous schmear of mayo. A great banh mi isn't just satisfying; it's refreshing, and Banh Mi Ba Le's is top of the line.
The half-dozen or so variations all start with a loaf of crackly baguette that's mere hours out of the oven. Two feet from those ovens, it's split open and filled with the good stuff in less time than you can say "one banh mi dac biet, please." Is this a secret? No, everyone will tell you to go to Ba Le for a sandwich. But this perfectly balanced sandwich on the north end of Dorchester's Vietnamese restaurant row is indeed the best way to start a day of aggressive eating. And if you're willing to risk the stomach space, pile upon pile of Vietnamese sweet and savory snacks are there to tempt you.
Fantastic Noodle Soup (Beyond Pho): Sunrise Restaurant
A little down Dot Ave. from Ba Le is a restaurant that gets far less love in the local food chatter. But Sunrise Restaurant is an earnest, friendly place with a lot to offer. While you can find better pho elsewhere in Dorchester, Sunrise's sweet version has its charms. Crisp cabbage salads come topped with juicy shrimp and shreds of candy-sweet pork. And the lemonade packs a fantastic kick of salt to shake you from any pho-soaked stupor. (It's best shared to lessen the impact.)
Sunrise does a lot of things really well, and the relative brevity of the menu suggests they stick to dishes they can get right. But if you're looking for the must-eat dish, it's a bowl of unassuming and, okay, not-very-pretty noodle soup, labeled as "udon" on the menu. It's a slightly cornstarch-thickened chicken broth loaded with fat rice noodles, tender crab meat, and slices of fishcake—mild, mellow, and utterly restoring. Mild doesn't mean boring, though. A month later, I can't stop thinking about this bowl.
Pho and Rice Noodles: Pho So 1
Pho So 1, overcomes its shabby decor and lackluster service to make what I'd call the best bowl of pho in the neighborhood. What sets it apart? Exceptional balance. If you'll allow me to quote myself:
"The broth boasts beefy, lip-smacking brawn with just a little sweet spice—something most pho cooks get, but it's rare to see one flavor not overpower the other. Pho So 1 is also big on the aromatic herbs, less common among Vietnamese restaurants in the area. Scallion and cilantro hit you as soon as the bowl hits the table, and they lighten every slurp better than any other bowl I tried. (Out of view: an especially plentiful pile of herbs to add yourself.) Finishing the package is tender—but not too tender—noodles, and loads of excellent beef: mild round, fatty flank that falls apart into sweet chunks, and light, feathery willows of tripe that offer a hint of feral funk and a crisp texture to offset the meat."
But my favorite thing at Pho So 1 isn't the pho; it's the bun: chilled rice noodles with your choice of grilled proteins and fried spring rolls, with some lettuce for crunch and plenty of nuoc cham for hits of sweet, salt, and fishy funk. Pho So 1's combination bowl comes with excellent grilled shrimp (with the charred heads left on for sucking), juicy marinated grilled pork, and very fresh pork spring rolls. Toss them together with the chopped peanuts, herbs, and pickled carrot and daikon, and you have a bowl that nails the intersection of meaty-satisfying and herbal-refreshing.
Beef Seven Ways
When non-local eaters pay a visit to Dorchester, they're usually there for pho, banh mi, or bo bay mon: Beef Seven Ways. It's a celebratory feast with not one but two fondues (one a bath of hot vinegar, the other gloriously decadent melted butter), plus all manner of chilled salad and grilled beef items and, just in case you're still hungry, a wide bowl of soothing rice porridge.
In Dorchester, the going rate for this four- to five-course meal is a comically low $35, which easily feeds two to four people. Several restaurants in the area offer similar versions, and it's both a great bang for your buck and a unique opportunity to sample a part of Vietnamese cuisine that's hard to find elsewhere.
Eating this meal three times in one day is honestly more pain than pleasure, but it does give you some insights into the particular ups and downs of the local beef-seven-ways scene. Namely: At all the restaurants that offer the dish, I wish it were an option to order individual courses à la carte, because not all those ways of beef are created equal.
Give me the butter fondue course at Pho Le, where the beef is especially tender and coated with an extra-generous marinade that fills the room with the sweet stink of garlic. But the grilled items there can't compare to Anh Hong's, where caul-fat-coated sausages, little logs of ground meat wrapped in charred, aromatic lolot leaves, and strips of beef twisted around scallions are more juicy and flavorful than anywhere else. And I'd give up all of the above for another bowl of the ground beef rice porridge at Pho 2000, which is delicate and light yet loaded with beefy oomph.
If I had to pick just one place to order beef seven ways, it'd be Anh Hong, which is pretty solid from start to finish and had more top-scoring courses than any other contenders nearby. But if you only have a day in Dorchester, plan your stomach space accordingly.