Quick: I say "famous food of Boston" and you say....
Fair points all, even if most of the lobster rolls don't compare to the seafood shacks up in Maine.
But if you ate around Boston with only an eye towards Americana, you'd be missing out on much of the city's best food. A Brazilian enclave in Cambridge. Great Chinese and Thai restaurants in Chinatown and beyond. And, just down the Red Line, a string of a dozen or so Vietnamese restaurants in Dorchester slinging some excellent banh mi and noodle salads.
That's why, when we took a 35-stop trip to Boston to eat everything in sight, we devoted a whole day to crawling down Dorchester Avenue, the main artery of the neighborhood's Vietnamese community. Nearly every Vietnamese restaurant there serves a bowl of pho, one of the country's most popular exports and one of the most fitting entries into Vietnamese cuisine.
The perfect bowl of pho dac biet is an elusive thing.* Like so much of Vietnamese cooking, it's all about balance: rich beef stock with a deep, concentrated savory-sweetness; the throat-warming hum of star anise and cinnamon; tender, chewy, and wobbly pieces of beef and tendon; the grassy bloom of fresh herbs; and slaps of lime juice and fish sauce to cut through it all.
There's more than one kind of pho out there, including some made with chicken rather than beef, but pho dac biet is among the most popular and consistently available. It's effectively the combo meal of pho, mixing together all the different beefy items a kitchen has to offer, typically raw round, braised brisket and fatty flank, tendon, and tripe.
Do it right and you have one of the world's great noodle soups, fortifying in one slurp and refreshing in another. Do it...less right and, well, it's still tasty beef noodle soup, just not the kind that sends you on vision quests.
On a mission to find the bowl of pho most likely to send you wandering naked through the desert, I downed a one at every Dorchester Vietnamese restaurant that put it on their menu. I was principally in pursuit of balance: the pho that nailed lipsmacking stock without tasting cloying, full of fresh meat across a range of textures (raw, braised, and wobbly), deepened by warm spices and lightened by herbs.
One superlative pho nailed the intersection of all those flavors better than anywhere else, so if you're ready to close your browser window and down some soup, pay a visit to Pho So 1, home to some wildly uncomfortable booth seating but brilliant pho. If you're looking for more, I have some more things to say about Pho So 1, along with a few other bowls worth mentioning.
Because here's the thing about pho: balance is in the eye of the be-slurper. Maybe you don't care about the broth as long as there's a big pile of good meat. Or you're all about those sweet spices. Or you're looking for something mild and mellow on your sick day. Well, good news, everyone: there's a pho for all of you, too. More on those honorable mentions below.
The Best Pho in Dorchester: Pho So 1
The only legible word in my scribbled notes on this bowl of pho: "remarkable." When you're eating 10 meals in a day, it takes a lot for a dish to stand out, but I can't stop thinking about this perfectly balanced bowl of soup served in one of the neighborhood's shabbiest restaurants.
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.
This bowl is worth a trip down to Dorchester all on its own. But here are a few honorable mentions worth calling out.
The Meat Lover's Pho: Pho Hoa
Pho Hoa regularly makes best-of lists about Boston's Vietnamese scene, and pho is certainly the core of their menu, which arranges 16 pho offerings along a spectrum of beginner to "adventurer." (The dac biet is on the extreme end of the "adventurer's choice" section.)
Frankly, I find the broth overly greasy and one-dimensionally meaty to the point of crude, but Daniel and some other tasters we brought along appreciated its bold anise notes. Where Pho Hoa shines is in the abundance and quality of meat that goes into the bowl. In the dac biet, that means raw round, lean cooked brisket, two types of braised flank, gelatinous tendon, and crisp tripe. All that meat is seasoned and cooked well, especially the melt-in-your-mouth flank and wobbly tendon. Subtle? Not in the least. But the bowl has an indisputable carnal pleasure.
The Sick-Day Special: Anh Hong
There's an important distinction between foods that are mellow and foods that are bland, and the pho at Anh Hong is all about the former. Most diners come to this restaurant for the multi-course feast of beef seven ways, but if I lived in Boston, this would be my go-to spot when I'm under the weather.
The beefiness is there, but it's tempered by sweetness that never gets cloying. Warming spices slink all the way down to the belly, and there's enough salt to keep you going even with a stuffy nose. What this bowl lacks is the proper dose of aromatic herbs, something bright to cut through all the steam. But it soothes like nothing else.
The Lightest of Them All: Pho Le
Good pho is never heavy, but some are lighter than others. Pho Le's is downright refreshing, and even on a warm summer day I finished this bowl feeling cooled down. Since the broth is light on beef and spices, the aromatics dominate, along with a distinct peppery heat absent in other bowls on this list. Another plus: excellent bits of tendon, wobbly but not grossly gelatinous. Though it's not as rich or complex as, say, Pho So 1's or Pho Hoa's, if you often find pho too heavy, this may be the bowl for you.
The Sweet and Spicy: Thao Ngoc
If, on the other hand, you're looking for something rich, deeply spiced, and more meaty, consider Thao Ngoc. The meat itself is rather lackluster, and the broth tosses away balanced aromatics for a focus on that spiced sweetness. This bowl is all about deep, sweet-spicy flavors; hardly a terrible thing.
A caveat, though: Thao Ngoc recently changed owners, and while much of the menu is currently the same, don't be surprised if some of your old favorites aren't available or get cooked differently. We visited on literally the first day of the new regime, and an old Thao Ngoc aficionado reported numerous changes to presentation and execution.
But that's okay. If your order doesn't turn out quite as planned, there's a dozen more options just a mile or so away. Pho sure.