Where's the beef? It's not hard to find at Pho Le Loi, a new Vietnamese restaurant on North Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. In addition to a long menu of noodles and soups, Pho Le Loi serves a unique Vietnamese meal composed entirely of beef.
It takes at least two people to tackle the amount of food that is included in dac biet bo 7 mon (special seven courses of beef). It also takes instruction, if you haven't eaten this sort of food before. There are rice wrappers, dipping sauce and accompanying plates of vegetables, herbs and lettuce to contend with. The procedure is to wrap pieces of meat along with the greenery in the rice wrappers, then dip the bundle in sauce. This dipping mixture is composed of sugar, vinegar and fish sauce, which is a basic Vietnamese seasoning. Bits of red chile make it hot.
Menu-planning tradition says not to serve the same food twice at the same meal. That may sound logical, but in fact it is merely arbitrary. The persistent appearance of beef at Pho Le Loi is not monotonous. On the contrary, it is fascinating to see what variety can be achieved with a single ingredient.
The first course, nhun dam, is a Vietnamese version of beef fondue. You cook thin slices of beef in a pot of bubbling sweet and sour liquid seasoned with lemon grass and onion. Before the cooking is finished, course two, cha dum, arrives. This is a large, tender meatball stuffed with peanuts and rice noodles and served with crisp shrimp chips.
The next plate holds three courses. Mo chai is a small meatball wrapped with a bit of beef fat. La lot refers to the green leaf that wraps an elongated meatball. The leaf has a subtle but intriguing flavor, reminiscent of grape leaves but not the same. It comes from Hawaii. The third member of this group is xa-te, which sounds like satay but is not. Instead of being cut into kebabs and strung on a skewer, the meat is thinly sliced, lined with strips of ginger, rolled and grilled.
JUMP STARTS HERE Bit-tet sounds so much like beef steak there is no need for translation. The grilled, thinly sliced beef comes on a plate of lettuce, tomato and onion and tastes so much like Mexican carne asada that you long for a tortilla to wrap it in. The alternative is to stuff it into a rice wrapper, creating a Vietnamese-style taco. For salsa, there is searingly hot Sriracha chile sauce in a squeeze bottle.
The last course is soup, or chao, which contains a little of a lot of things, including ground beef, rice, tiny pasta, cilantro and ginger. The soup is good and the serving is generous, but at this stage of the meal it may be impossible to handle more than a spoonful.
Eating Vietnamese food seems healthful because you wind up eating almost as much lettuce and raw vegetables as meat. The vegetable plate that accompanies the beef courses includes strips of carrot and jicama, bean sprouts, sliced cucumber and thin slices of a hard green banana imported, like the la lot leaf, from Hawaii. Another container holds lettuce leaves and mint. One day, instead of mint, there was a long leaf that looked like lettuce but had strong sharp flavor. Language limitations shared by customer and waitress made it impossible to establish its identity.
Pho Le Loi is not the only restaurant in Southern California to serve the all-beef menu, but may be the first to bring it to downtown Los Angeles. Most of the Vietnamese restaurants in the Central City concentrate on noodles, soups and other dishes that are ordered individually.
The price for the seven courses is $8.95. The charge is not calculated per person but covers a set amount of food, so two can eat for $4.50 each. That makes this meal a rare bargain for beef-eaters.
Pho Le Loi, 640 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 680-4644. Open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Cash only. Validated parking in the Arco lot at the corner of North Main Street and Sunset Boulevard, where it turns into Macy Street.