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Beef Times Seven Equals a Vietnamese Dining Tradition

Where’s the beef? In Vietnam you’ll find it entrusted to chefs who cook nothing else. They specialize in bo bay mon-- an entire meal made of beef and served in seven differently prepared courses.

Seven courses of beef may sound like an unwieldy repast but these courses are samplers of Vietnamese culinary artistry; they do not in any way resemble a lumberjack’s dinner. Their well-bred lightness embodies the Vietnamese preference for the leanest meats cooked with barely any oil and enhanced by a glorious variety of options--hot sauce or cool greens, crunchy chips or tart dip--from which diners may tailor each bite to their momentary whim. And here in Los Angeles the tab for this lavish spread is rarely more than $10.

A bo bay mon meal isn’t hard to find. All over L.A. County you find restaurants with a picture of a smiling cow and the words “bo 7 mon” on their sign.

Of the two San Fernando Valley bo 7 mon restaurants, Pho So 1, (Pho No. 1) is best. It offers an assortment of all purpose dishes but the menu cover reads “dac biet bo 7 mon” (house specialty, beef seven courses).

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Soon after you order, the table becomes a landscape of exotic vegetables and greens filled with platters of green banana slices, pickled white radish, and branches of leafy herbs alongside stacks of translucent rice papers. Fortunately, the menu offers a chatty informative dialogue carefully describing the conventions of the bo 7 mon dining ritual. “For the beef salad,” it reads, “you need only dip portions into the accompanying fish sauce.” But mam nem, a potent blend of fermented anchovy paste and crushed pineapple is an acquired taste. And though the Vietnamese consider this sauce an essential part of bo 7 mon, you must request it. Otherwise, guests automatically get the more familiar nuoc cham (pronounced nook-cham), a clear sweet-tart sauce and a jar of hot chili paste to mix in.

“Second course, bo nhung dam, is beef fondue,” the tutorial continues. Another platter of thin beef slices arrives and the waiter manages to find space to light a Sterno-fueled pot. “Lay one or two rice papers out on your plate, cover with a little lettuce and herbs” Then,” it advises, “using your chopsticks, dip one or two slices of the beef into the boiling vinegar stock in the pot to cook as you like. Place the beef on your ready greens.” The whole is then rolled in the rice paper burrito-style and dipped in the sauce. A bite of this celestial combination explains the nearly reverent way Vietnamese reminisce about bo bay mon.

Before the last of the fondue has been cooked, the waiter brings cha dum, a steamed dumpling of seasoned chopped beef mixed with Chinese tree ear mushrooms and clear noodles; it resembles a savory mini meat loaf. Diners use the airy shrimp chips that accompany cha dum as an edible spoon to eat pieces of dumpling along with a few herbs.

Courses four, five and six are also eaten burrito-style--although some people simply munch them down straight. Three grilled items are generally included: juicy little patties of minced beef wrapped in tissue-thin caul; beef rolled in an elusively flavored Hawaiian la lot leaf (rather like grape leaves); and thin slices of beef encircling strips of jicama.

A clear broth scattered with bits of beef, rice and star-shaped noodles, is the traditional finish. It’s especially soothing if you have been mixing generous portions of chili into your dipping sauce.

Pho So 1, 7231 Reseda Blvd., Reseda, (818) 996-6515. Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m., daily Also at 120 E. Valley Blvd., I-J, San Gabriel (818) 571-7432 and 14122 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 537-5022.

For almost everyone who has lived in Saigon in the last half century, Anh Hong is synonymous with bo 7 mon. The restaurant brought this dinner into fashion shortly after World War II.

“Even though the roads leading to Anh Hong were narrow and unpaved, muddy or dusty according to the weather, people used to come from all over Saigon,” reminisced a Vietnamese friend. The suburban restaurant’s white-napped outdoor tables, shaded by trees strung with little lights, served about 500 customers a day.

When Le Van Kha and his family fled Vietnam they left with a passion to introduce bo 7 mon to the world. After giving up his venerated Saigon establishment Le Van Kha opened two restaurants in Belgium, at Waterloo and Louvain. And now the family runs three Anh Hong restaurants in California.

In a quiet Orange County shopping center, Anh Hong has an airy high-tech interior. On weekends, waiters virtually run through the dining room to attend crowds of large families and fun-loving groups.

Anh Hong’s reputation was built on its mam nem dipping sauce, its sweet-tart pickled lemon grass and bo cha dum, translated on the menu as steamed “pate” of beef. The meatball is so light it has an almost souffle-like texture. And its complex flavor kept me eating and trying to figure out the enigmatic taste. Instead of the usual commercially-produced shrimp chips, Anh Hong serves the more authentic banh trang nuoc dua, a crisp, golden triangle of rice flour and coconut milk, to accompany its cha dum.

If you are not up to all seven courses, you can order the courses that you want a la carte. In addition, such dishes as shrimp fondue or a beef and shrimp combination grilled at the table assure there’s something for every taste.

Anh Hong, 10195 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 537-5230. Hours: 3-10 p.m. , Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Friday-Sunday.

For adventurous connoisseurs there’s Sau Dang, a restaurant with its menu written solely in Vietnamese. But even those who don’t speak Vietnamese can say bo 7 mon and point; that is what I did. What I got was very good indeed. The meats were succulent, the vegetables fresh and the servings more abundant than what we found elsewhere. We didn’t need to request mam nem sauce here, although we did defer to the milder nuoc cham. And our Vietnamese-style coffees were boldly flavored and delicious.

Sau Dang has a certain raffish charm. It may be the result of eerie florescent lighting and a monotonously circulating fan over a picture of Clint Eastwood in Western garb, or the beer bottles in wooden crates that are stationed by the door to greet entering customers.

Sau Dang, 10546 Westminster Ave. Garden Grove, (714) 636-6710. Hours: noon-midnight, Thursday-Tuesday.

Pagolac, likely the first bo 7 mon restaurant in Southern California, is rated No. 1 by many Vietnamese. The finesse of its spacious white interior matches the refinement of the food. Pagolac offers only two other items: beef grilled at the table and whole fish garnished with roasted peanuts and leafy coriander (prices for fish begin at $18 and go up according to size).

Our waiter nervously tried to dissuade us from ordering the fish, fearing we wouldn’t know how to deal with a whole one. (It is eaten the familiar way, with vegetables and wrapped in rice paper). After a lengthy discussion, we assured him a whole fish would be wonderful and that we wanted to try nam mem sauce. We even got our beer without ice, which is contrary to Vietnamese beer drinking custom.

While most bo 7 mon meals are fairly similar, each has its own twist on the theme. Here, a wonderful salad of hot grilled beef over lettuce with a vinaigrette owes a debt to France. Of all the bo 7 mon dinners I’ve eaten, Pagolac’s was the most subtly seasoned, with the exception of its powerfully gingery last course soup.

Pagolac 14564 Brookhurst St. Westminster, (714) 531-4740. Hours: 12-9 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday.

May Hong’s exterior may be a tad worn, but the food tastes as delicious as its more elegant competition. At $8 (that’s $1.15 per course) May Hong’s large servings make it one of the better bo deals in town. And its also one of the beefier deals. In place of a beef-garnished salad, May Hong brings on a large brochette of perfectly marinated and grilled meat strips sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts.

Bo nuong vi, an enormous platter of thin beef slices for grilling at the table, is adorned with slabs of butter to melt on the grill before searing each slice. Along with the standard coriander-basil-mint trio, May Hong offers an assortment of unusual herbs to wrap in rice paper.

May Hong, 10561 Bolsa Ave. Garden Grove, (714) 554-0974. Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Wednesday-Monday.

Pho Le Loi in Chinatown is the most centrally located bo 7 mon restaurant. And it does a serviceable version of the meal. But we had to ask for herbs other than lettuce and mint, and missed the esoteric items like pickled garlic and lemon grass, which are routinely found elsewhere. And the tricky-to-prepare bo cha dum, or steamed meatball, was less appealing than most; Instead of the tender, barely visible angel-hair noodles used in better versions, this was heavy with long strands of thick bean threads. On the other hand the fondue, grilled meats and soup were as good as we found elsewhere. And in the long run bo 7 mon is so straightforward and so appealing that it is hard to ruin this wonderful meal.

Pho Le Loi, 640 N. Spring St . , Chinatown, (213) 680-4644. Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.


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