It’s common knowledge among Bostonian Vietnamese and increasingly Dorchester’s worst kept secret: one may not find better, more authentic Vietnamese food elsewhere than here in the Dot. Indeed Dorchester is home to one of the fastest growing Vietnamese enclaves in all of America. Thanks to an array of outstanding Vietnamese establishments, Dorchester is hands-down the Vietnamese food capital of Boston.
Amidst the culinary heavyweights in restaurant-dense Fields Corner neighborhood, Anh Hong still rises to the top with its beef-times-seven magic, the signature dish bo bay mon (seven-course beef). In fact, the original venture by Julie Thai scored a hat trick vote by Boston Magazine as Boston’s best Vietnamese restaurant from 2011 and to 2013. This year, the magazine also votes Anh Hong the Best Neighborhood Restaurant in Dorchester.
One afternoon in August, a friend and I walked from the Red Line station to Adams Street, which teems with Vietnamese kitchens such as Pho 2000 and Pho So 1. As soon as we were seated in the gleaming restaurant, we ordered two rau ma dau xanh (pennywort juice with mung bean). The legendary grassy drink instantly leached the mid-summer heat off our parched throats. We helplessly guzzled the rich green juice to the point of abdominal distension. Then came the inevitable food envy: covetously we looked on the neighboring rotund tables sagging with the beef banquet while waiting for rapacity to return to us.
The parade of plates was truly spellbinding. Hot steam from the beef fondue rose up to smiley faces. The World Cup game was on, but no one seemed to be watching. Children played with their rice papers like translucent construction papers. Families and friends made rolls for each other and exchanged jokes. Waitresses flitted about with inviting trayfuls.
Bo bay mon kicks off with goi bo: thin shavings dressed with sesame oil, lemongrass and pepper, cooked tableside, then wrapped in moistened rice papers, packed taco-style with pickled daikon and carrots, vermicelli noodles and fresh minty greens (rau song). It’s worth taking note of the herbal luxuriance that accompanies each of the seven courses. Even when they love meat, Vietnamese remain hearty herbivores. The rau song include cucumber, green banana, starfruit shavings, lemon balm, coriander, ngo gai (red perilla, saw-tooth leaves that taste like cilantro on steroids) and tiny rau om (rice paddy herb). Finally, the wrap is to be dunked in chunky mam nem, a sauce made with aged anchovies that has a kick of pineapple-y tart sweetness.
Next up is bo nhung dam: deep-red sliced tenderloins to be deftly swished through a simmering vinegared fondue. Bo nuong mo chai—sausages made from grilled ground beef wrapped in caul fat casing over charcoal—is to follow. The meal hits its midway crescendo when bo la lot makes its appearance—a platter of charred logs of minced beef bundled in aromatic la lot leaves, which are grape leaves’ more verdant cousins.
Just when you think you cannot be anymore delighted, here comes bo cha dum–steamed ground beef balls, bound together with mung bean noodles, mushroom and nuts, flavored with lemongrass scooped up with crunchy prawn crackers. The penultimate bo nuong hanh, camp fire-style grilled strips of beef rolled with a piece of scallion on skewers, is understatedly wonderful. Last but not least, chao bo (beef congee) provides an elegant finale to the meal. Comforting and digestive, the beef-flecked broken rice broth with fresh cilantro and a gingery hint extends a warm goodbye hug to your stomach at the end of the food marathon.
If you’re a maximalist, ever fretful of missing out on life’s wonders, this seven-course extravaganza, amazingly priced at $33 for two, is a sure pleaser. Yet bo bay mon is not at all about eating a cow in seven sittings. The meal showcases the Vietnamese knack for creative assemblage, intuitively masterful understanding of food chemistry, and a simple yet insistent demand for a good taste. It is a bacchanalian feast that does not overwhelm, a sensation that is not overhyped.
My companion and I, still having not recovered from overjuicing, happily resigned with the reliably good pho bo tai gan (pho noodle with rare beef and tendons) and hu tiu nam vang (Cambodian-style rice noodles). Anh Hong’s other classics such as bun rieu (crab tomato noodle soup), fried squail and various piquant salads have also gathered a cult following.
There is still so much to sample in Dot: impeccable pho at Pho Hoa and Pho Le, or succulent shellfish at Brother’s Crawfish and Saigon Seafood, just to name a few.
For all the leisurely degustation, royal sumptuousness, and festive communality that they offer, budget-friendly Anh Hong and other Dorchester Vietnamese restaurants bring out the epicurean in every man. Be it for a secret project of gastronomic egalitarianism or a gushing display of Vietnamese hospitality and culinary ingenuity, this taste village is here to stay and we’re glad for it.
Anh Hong is located at 291 Adams St., Dorchester.