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Beef Times Seven Equals a Vietnamese Dining Tradition

November 01, 1987|LINDA BURUM

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).

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.

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