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Jan 6, 2000 06:08 PM

Vietnamese Food --- Making Friends with Phos

  • t

For Vietnamese food to dominate Dorchester Ave. is an irony of ironies. I grew up here and live in my childhood home of 62 years. During the Vietnam War Dorchester was a "love it or leave it" hot bed of patriotic fervor. Dorchester kids went from a violence -crazed all white Christian society to the front lines in Vietnam -never once questioning the wisdom or motivation of their leaders. I did question that leadership -and went to jail for it. Today Dorchester has an isolated memorial to the kids who paid the price for policies few would defend today -but for every Dorchester kid that died there were probably a few tens of thousands of Vietnamese who went up in napalm smoke or down to starvation or disease brought about through the actions of these or other All-American boys.

Anyway -when the waves of Vietnamese immigration came to Boston , Dorchester is where they settled first. Good neighbors -good people -good food. No fight about that :-)

Dorchester Ave. runs from the South Boston Postal Annex behind South Station all the way down to Milton. Before the SE Exway and Morrisey Boulevard were built, Dot Ave. was the main route south from the city. What is called "White Flight" in the 60s and 70s emptied Dot Ave. of customers and businesses. "Block-busting" and school busing sent whites scurrying south to Quincy and points further down towards the Cape. The 20s and 30s built store fronts stood empty for a generation. Now the whole Avenue is alive with little mom and pop Vietnamese shops and restaurants - phone services - video rentals -bridal shops - travel agencies -- kids toys - car detailing and repairs - computers -- supermarkets. Its so intense that our favorite red-neck Boston politician "Dapper" O'Niel ( now retired when his senility became too apparent) referred to it as "Little Saigon" and the residents in various colorful racial terms.

And here I am -a native - born here in 1937 and living in the house I grew up in just a couple blocks off Dot Ave. next to St Williams School and the Savin Hill T stop. We renames this place Stab'n Kill after white kids murdered a black boy and left his body on the Savin Hill "T" tracks. They got away with murder.

The arrival of the Vietnamese stabilized the neighborhoods and a lot of the killing stopped.

Though it made no difference to them, years ago I decided that the Vietnamese were a delightful fact of my life. Other neighbors hated blacks but the Vietnamese weren't black -so - so they took a "let's see what they are like before we try to kill them and drive them out" attitude. Whole blocks became Vietnamese - property values went up - houses were fixed up -flowers and trees planted -and the neighborhoods were OK again.

Next to the Irish Pubs we began seeing store-front eateries appearing with names like "Pho" something or "Saigon Café". So, Pho? -what is this food they eat ? My youngest son was still in public school. The only white kid in his class. His friends were all Asians and he was speaking Chinese on the phone. He was eating this pho. I'd always like Chinese food and I started trying Vietnamese cuisine at his insistence and out of my curiosity.
I'd like to follow the lead of people reporting on Boston's North End ( Italian) and talk about Dot Ave. Vietnamese restaurants and pho.

Pho is soup -a whole-meal soup -a big healthy steaming bowl of soup -- that looks delicious, smells delicious and is delicious. Pho is a staple of Vietnamese life -so its pretty cheap. Most Anglos appear to doubt that they have been served a gourmet item for less than five bucks. So be it. Pho is healthy - a broth made of bones and several spices -little fat - vegetables added -noodles - various meats or fish - a side plate of bean sprouts, holy basil, a single intensely hot small green chili pepper -- and a large tray of various condiments you use as you go -according to YOUR taste. Pho goes down well in any weather. It warms in winter and cools in summer. It is the soup for all seasons.

Some of you may have seen the Japanese film - "Tampopo" That is an odyssey of noodles. Someone should make a pho film and get America into pho.

Since I am obviously not Vietnamese I have to assume that my tastes will lead me in the dirtection of good pho versus bad pho. I watched the natives eat their pho -the left hand holds the flat-bottomed spoon -the right hand holds the chop sticks -you scoop up a load of noodles and shovel them in with the sticks. I'm OK with chop sticks but I have found it best to ask for a fork. I can swirl up a fork-full of noodles, dip the load into any one of several sauces taken from the condiment tray -and get my own tastes satisfied.

The tray usually has a container with soy sauce, a bottle of Hoisin sauce, some vinegar, a thin red pepper sauce, a jar or two of sambals and salt and pepper -along with a stack of spoons and chop sticks. I take a small dish and mix sambal with Hoisin sauce and flavor my noodles without getting the sauces into the soup.

The pho itself can have several sorts of meat - thin cut rib-eye steak slices, brisket slices, flank steak slices, meat balls, tripe, and soft tendon. You can have any of these meats in any combination you would like. There is also chicken pho, shrimp pho, seafood pho, and vegetarian pho. There are probably lots more -the Chinatown Vietnamese place I started going to years ago has several -like a chicken and duck's blood pho with tomatoes and potatoes, carrots and such.

You can further customize your pho by asking for different sorts of noodles -Udon -for example. You can ask for onion in vinegar scallion heads, etc. Anything goes with pho.

You can finish your experience with a glass of fruit based drink - I like fresh coconut juice, or a strong lemonade, durian or avocado drink. If you prefer, Vietnamese coffee and condensed milk can satisfy. .

Oh yes, slurping pho is encouraged.

I'll report on several Dot Ave pho palaces as time permits. Meanwhile -check out this web-site

There is nothing like a big bowl of pho on a cold, gray winter's day --- especially if you have a head cold. Extra sambal in the pho will free your nasal passages pronto. :-

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  1. t
    Tom Stebbins

    Tord et al.,
    Apparently there is a pho scare going on in Vietnam right now after formaldahyde (sp) was discovered in some of the local pho. Check CNN's food coverage at for the full story.


    1 Reply
    1. re: Tom Stebbins
      Tord Svenson

      Friends -- Here is the URL for the Vietnam story.

      Apparently formaldehyde is widely and illegally used in Vietnam in the food preparation industry. It slowly poisons the body.

      The clever Vietnamese spin doctors are dealing with the crisis by telling everyone not to worry -- "Think about it this way. When you die you don't need to be embalmed. You are already full of formaldehyde."


    2. Tord, Thanks for an interesting historical and evolutionary look at your part of Boston. Is it the section one hears referred to as "Southie"?

      Your pho story made me hungry and I just had breakfast! I think I'll pop over to our Vietnamese strip when lunch time gets here. pat

      1 Reply
      1. re: pat hammond
        Tord Svenson

        Pat said ---

        "Tord, Thanks for an interesting historical and evolutionary look at your part of Boston. Is it the
        section one hears referred to as "Southie"?"

        ------ Reply ---------
        It's next to South Boston bounded by Quincy, Milton, etc. Dorchester is the largest section of Boston and is mainly residential -- a lot of "three deckers"

        Back in the 1600s Dorchester extended all the way down to what is now Rhode Island. Over the years it reduced in area and finally incorporated into Boston in the 19th century. Dorchester has a proud history of accomodating immigrants. Right now there are many Asians here --along with Polish people ( I wish that Boston had a Polish restaurant !) and Irish.

        Southie and Dorchester youths have maintained rivalries over the years. The old song sums it up -- "If you want a punch in the mouthie --come over to Southie --Southie is my home town."

        If anyone wants a taste of Southie and Dorchester rent the video of the film -- "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" It is fine movie staring Robert Mitchem . There is a line in the movie that captures a lot of what growing up on the streets here teaches. The young anti-hero has driven down to Rhode Island to buy some machine guns from a couple of National Guard soldiers. He parks facing a hill where they are waiting for him. He leaves his muscle car running with the high beams on. The soldiers get testy and tell him to cool it. He says -- "I've got money --you've got machine guns. Life is hard, but its a lot harder if you're stupid!"

        Funny -- my son's best friend in High School belongs to a family that owned a major Vietnamese restuarant on Dorchester Ave. A couple of years ago his father got popped for selling machine guns to undercover ATF agents. They lost the restaurant. The more things change, the more they stay the same :-)

      2. i really enjoyed reading your experiences while u were younger it was really fascinating to hear about other peoples lifestyles