Sunday, September 21, 2008

7 Courses of Beef You Wouldn't Want to Miss: Vietnam San Gabriel

Admittedly the title is a little unclear, but then so is the name of the restaurant. Feeling like I deserved a treat after the mind-numbingly boring auditing training, I hopped in my car and followed Jonathan Gold to San Gabriel for my first experience with Seven Courses of Beef.

More after the jump...

For awhile, I've heard about the famous Bo 7 Mon or Seven Courses of Beef from my mom and several Vietnamese friends. I've rarely seen it in restaurants however, finding out that it's usually served for special occasions or in high-end restaurants. Of course, when I eat Vietnamese, it's hardly ever high-end. Even $7 pho is too expensive for me. When I read Jonathan Gold's Counter Intelligence article on Vietnam, I knew I had to try it. Since this is a Vietnamese heavy entry, I'd appreciate the help of Wandering Chopsticks for any corrections.

The generically named restaurant seemed a little odd considering it didn't contain the words "pho, Saigon" in the name or end with a number. But I suppose coming from a rich history of restaurants, the food and experience of the proprietors can speak for itself. Michael Le, whose parents own the famous Golden Deli, runs Vietnam, and it was him that took my order. Explaining that this was the first time I had Bo 7 Mon he graciously helped me with the rice paper wrappings and introduced each course. Of course, finding out that I wasn't Vietnamese, he was much more patient with my pronunciation.

My mis en place for meat with bo nhung dam in the center

A young Vietnamese waiter with broken English brought out the rice paper, herbs, do chua (pickles) and sweet dipping sauce to accompany the beef. First up, the bo nhung dam described as "beef dip in vinegar broth" in the menu. My first instinct was to dip my soup spoon into the boiling pot. After all, it was crystal clear with a few onions, nothing that looked particularly flavorful. Of course my assumptions associating color with flavor were completely wrong when I tasted the sharp astringency of the vinegar. Dipping my thinly sliced pieces of steak into the broth briefly, keeping the meat rare, I wrapped it haphazardly in soaked rice paper with the pickels, basil, cilantro and topped it with some light sauce. Although the spring roll was a colossal disaster, the pieces I managed to get in my mouth were well worth the embarrassment (keep in mind, at this point they still thought I was an extremely inept Vietnamese).

I found a mysterious pale strip on my plate with the cucumbers. It was slightly flesh, resembling an trumpet mushroom. Putting a little in my mouth, I drew back immediately. It tasted like soap and somehow immediately drew all the moisture out of my tongue. Odd sensation yes, but not one I'd like to repeat. When I got home, I did a little research and I'm reasonably certain that I had my first experience with raw galangal. Wandering Chopsticks says that this was probably astringent green banana peel since Vietnamese don't eat raw galangal.

Clockwise from top left: bo cha dum, bo nuong la lot, bo mo chai, bo sa-te (sorry for the shrimp chip in the way)

Next came four courses at once. Since I was only one person, there were only a few pieces of each beef course, but still enough for two people with another appetizer on the side. Bo cha dum (baked ground beef) didn't look like much, the essentially large meat ball, had more flavor than anything you find on top of pasta or in the freezer case at Ikea. According to Wikipedia, the beef is rolled in caul fat to protect it during cooking. I don't know how much it protects the meat, but it sure flavored it.

Bo nuong la lot (charbroiled beef in aromatic lot leaf) reminded me of the grape leaf rolled rice in Greek cuisine. In fact, the leaves tasted similar, but also like the lotus leaves used to wrap Chinese sticky rice. It made the beef slightly sweet and uniquely flavored compared to the two preparations I had before.

Bo mo chai (grilled beef steak) surprised me. My first impression was a beef sausage, not too common in Asia. But biting through the sausage, I realized it was actually a tightly rolled piece of grilled steak wrapped around a scallion. Although the simplest in flavor, this course let the essence of the beef shine through without clouding it with other flavors, including that ubiquitous fish sauce.

Bo sa-te (beef in sate sauce) looked much more like a meatball than bo cha dum but had the consistency of a hamburger. The meat was tightly packed, slightly tougher to chew. I'm not entirely sure what "sate sauce" is. A couple contenders could be the peanut sauce used in Thai cooking, or maybe the sacha sauce of Chinese, but the flavor didn't match either one.

Eating all this beef, I needed something to cleanse the palate. Out came the next dish bo salat simply "beef salad." The thinly sliced red onions certainly didn't clean my palate, but it was a break from the meat. This dish was heavily doused in fish sauce and the familiar flavors of grilled Vietnamese dishes returned. Black pepper on the beef gave a nice change of heat compared to the peppers in the other courses.

Michael Le came over and asked how I was doing. We talked, surprisingly, in Chinese for awhile when he realized my true ethnicity. It isn't uncommon for Vietnamese people to speak Chinese or to have Chinese heritage, and in fact, I could pick up on a slight accent. He brought out the last course chao bo (beef porridge). Unlike Cantonese congee, this porridge was thin and soupy with broken rice and ground beef and strands of fresh ginger. The consistency was more like Japanese ochazuke. While a refreshing way to end the meal, I'm not a fan of boiled meat.

My first experience with seven courses of beef went extraordinarily well. Perhaps I picked a good restaurant or perhaps I was just born to eat a cow prepared seven ways. Jumping right into the beef, I neglected to mention the decor of the restaurant. Simply put, it's a Vietnamese restaurant, how different do they get? Surprisingly though, Vietnam takes credit card, not that I needed it. What do you think seven courses costs? Less than $2 per course actually. I thanked Mr. Lee, ordered a pork banh mi to go, and drove off eager to bring someone back with me next time.

It was delicious by the way!

(626) 281-5577
340 W Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, 91776
Closed Thursday
$14 for seven courses of beef; $3.25 for banh mi



ila said...

oooo seven kinds of beef! i like the one rolled in the perilla-ish leaf :)

Anonymous said...

Have you tried 9 courses of fish or 5 courses of escargots? I like the fish one most.


Aaron said...

@ila of course you would; you're a shiso fiend

Just Cook It said...

7 Courses of beef? Sounds pretty close to heaven.

H. C. said...

Nice writeup; I've always been curious about trying the seven courses whenever I am at a Vietnamese restaurant that offers it, but always skeptical on whether I can finish. Seeing your post, I know I definitely can't! *_* Guess I'll stick to trying the seven courses a la carte on multiple visits.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

This is bugging the hell out of me because I didn't know you were planning on quoting me from Twitter-speak when you asked for assistance.

Vietnamese do not eat raw galangal. The odd taste was sliced green bananas, with the peel attached, which gives a rather astringent sensation if you're not used to it.

David a.k.a. Ice said...

love this spot, I've had the seven course beef dinner a couple times. My favorite has always been the charbroiled beef wrapped in aromatic leaf. when you wrap everything up in the rice paper its a really great bite of food.