There are many components to pho and banh mi that make them the beloved Vietnamese dishes they are. Pho has a depth of flavor from slow cooking with whole toasted spices such as star anise, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and allspice and the use of pungent nuoc mam (fish sauce). Banh mi has a delicious balance of flavors — salty cured and fresh meats, umami pate, sweet and sour pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs — all on a perfectly soft yet crunchy baguette.
The balance and depth of flavors that make pho and banh mi so well-loved can be found in many other Vietnamese dishes, including a variety of noodles, soups from different regions of Vietnam, steamed rice rolls in many forms and with various different fillings, and so much more.
Dorchester is home to a vibrant Vietnamese community, and the area near Fields Corner where Adams Street and Dorchester Avenue run into one another is home to a cluster of excellent Vietnamese restaurants. An eater can definitely find great pho and banh mi in the neighborhood, if that’s what they’re after, but it’s not all about pho and banh mi. And while Dorchester is the epicenter of Vietnamese food in Boston, there are great options in Brighton, Chinatown, Fenway, and elsewhere.
Here are just five great dishes to know in addition to pho and banh mi, and where to find them in Boston.
Bun rieu is a Vietnamese soup, where bun refers to the round rice noodles and rieu refers to a crab and egg mixture that is dropped into the broth, which is tomato-based. The soup is topped with fried tofu, a seafood component (shrimp, for example), green onions, cilantro, and lime.
At Ánh Hồng Restaurant (291 Adams St., Dorchester), the bun rieu comes with large pieces of fresh tomato and generous amounts of fried tofu pieces, which add a nice spongy texture. Ánh Hồng’s version contains an additional seafood component: pieces of imitation crab.
Ánh Hồng Restaurant is currently offering takeout, delivery, and indoor dining.
You can also find bun rieu at Hien Vuong Restaurant (1487 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester), where the soup contains large pieces of the crab and egg mixture and has an incredible depth of flavor. Hien Vuong Restaurant is currently offering takeout.
Banh cuon and banh beo
Steamed rice rolls and cakes are made by steaming a mixture of rice flour and tapioca flour, making them soft and chewy. There are many varieties of these dishes in Vietnam with different sauces, fillings, and topping; two to try in Boston are banh cuon and banh beo.
“Banh” (as in banh mi) loosely translates to bread or cake, and is often used to describe Vietnamese dishes. In banh cuon, “cuon” translates to “rolled,” and accordingly, these are steamed rice rolls, which are typically stuffed with wood ear mushrooms and ground pork, and often accompanied by a Vietnamese sausage called cha lua, as well as fresh components like cucumbers and bean sprouts. Banh beo are smaller, circular steamed rice flour cakes, which are topped with fried pork fat and dried shrimp. Both of these dishes are served with a dipping sauce made with fish sauce.
Ba Le Restaurant (1052 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester) serves a phenomenal banh cuon. The rice rolls are steamed to be warm with a soft texture, and are accompanied by crispy Vietnamese egg rolls and Vietnamese pork sausage. If it’s in season, order this with a cup of sugarcane juice (nuoc mia) — it’s a sweet and refreshing complement to the salty fish sauce that comes alongside the banh cuon. Ba Le is currently offering takeout (order over the phone or in person).
Find banh beo at Pho Le (1356 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester). It’s the perfect appetizer to share with friends, but it can be eaten as a meal for one, too. The banh beo at Pho Le has a delightful balance of rice cakes, toppings, and fresh green onions. Pho Le is currently offering takeout, delivery, and indoor dining.
Bo kho is another soup dish, and it is perfect for a cold day. Bo means “beef” and kho means “to braise” or “to stew,” and bo kho is a stew flavored with lemongrass, ginger, and other aromatics, made hearty with beef and carrots and served with either noodles or French bread. Those who enjoy bo kho should also look for other dishes with “kho,” like thit kho to (caramelized braised pork) and ca kho (caramelized braised fish).
Pho 1 Brighton (1799 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton) serves its bo kho with tons of thick rice noodles. The beef is perfectly tender and the broth is incredibly aromatic with an earthy flavor from the lemongrass and tomato paste. It also serves three other great Vietnamese soups — mi hai san (a seafood egg noodle soup), bun bo Hue (a beef and rice noodle soup from the central city Huế), and hu tieu (a shrimp and pork soup with a clear broth). Pho 1 Brighton is currently offering takeout, delivery, and indoor dining.
When you order bo kho at Pho Basil (177 Massachusetts Ave., Fenway), you can choose between rice noodles or white rice. Since bo kho could be considered either a soup or a stew, choosing noodles or rice gives you options for how you’d like to experience it. And for an appetizer to accompany your bo kho, you can’t go wrong with an order of cha gio (a crispy fried roll) or goi cuon (a steamed rice roll with fillings). Pho Basil is currently offering takeout, delivery, and indoor dining.
Chao tom is a dish that comes from the central region of Vietnam, and it is essentially a shrimp patty on a piece of sugarcane. It is served in different ways, so it’s not uncommon to find it listed in various sections on a Vietnamese restaurant’s menu; diners may find it on its own in the appetizer section, for example, or as one of the components to a main noodle dish. The sugarcane cannot be eaten whole, but it can be chewed to access its sweet, pleasant flavor.
Pho Pasteur (682 Washington St., Chinatown) has a dish called banh hoi chao tom thit nuong, which they translate as steamed vermicelli cake with shrimp cake on sugarcane and grilled pork. It’s in the appetizer section, but the portion is ample. It is served with banh hoi, which are very thin rice noodles that are woven together into a bundle and served with various vegetables and meats. Pho Pasteur is currently offering takeout, delivery, and indoor dining.
At Pho Le, the bun dac biet (vermicelli special combination) is served with the bun noodles typical of the vermicelli noodle and meat bowls found at many Vietnamese restaurants. But what makes Pho Le’s version unique is that it serves it with crispy spring rolls, grilled shrimp, and perfectly grilled pieces of chao tom, along with a choice of grilled chicken, beef, or pork. Pho Le is currently offering takeout, delivery, and indoor dining.
If you’re looking for an accompaniment to any of these dishes, a fruit smoothie is always a smart choice at a Vietnamese restaurant. What makes a Vietnamese fruit smoothie creamy and sweet is the condensed milk, which is also what’s used in Vietnamese iced coffee. Different Vietnamese restaurants have different flavors, but some of the popular ones include jackfruit, mango, avocado, and lychee.
163 Vietnamese Sandwiches & Bubble Tea (66 Harrison Ave., Chinatown) serves a delicious jackfruit smoothie. For those who’ve never tried jackfruit before, it has a strong flavor that’s been described as a combination of fruits like mango, banana, apple, and pineapple. It’s hard to compare, though, so give it a try alongside some banh cuon or any one of its savory dishes. 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches & Bubble Tea is currently offering takeout.