Ordeal by Beef
The seven-course beef dinner known as bo bay mon is the holy grail of Vietnamese cuisine. Some say it was invented by a Frenchman in Saigon a century ago, while others claim it evolved naturally, pointing to the pre-existence of all the dishes. The rules are few: Begin by swishing beef strips in a boiling vinegar fondue, and finish up slurping beef congee. In between, all courses must contain beef. While Los Angeles and Houston have a dozen places that serve this cow-de-force, New York has only one, which offers it almost as an afterthought. Pho Viet Huong is the city's most ambitious Vietnamese restaurant, with a décor evoking a tropical village and featuring bamboo-shingled huts, palm trees dangling bananas, and slowly revolving ceiling fans. The menu's first page offers bo bay mon at $22.95 per person, but if you order it the waiter is likely to register annoyance.
Our first course began inauthentically with a lake of oil on a gas griddle. A plate of bright red meat arrived pinwheeled on the plate. It seemed a crime to fry it, and indeed, the result resembled shirt cardboard. Infinitely better was the follow-up of goi bo, a warm salad of marinated beef tossed with cilantro, onions, and peanuts in a tart dressing. The chopsticks continued to fly with the third and fourth courses, which sailed in on the same plate, lined up like Lincoln Logs. Number three was bo nuong luitight knuckles of beef brushed with a sesame glaze and charcoal grilled, while four, bo la lopbeef charred in grape leavesimparted a marvelous astringency. Separating the sticky rice paper to wrap the beef in was a dexterity test.
Course five was another plate of thin-shaved carpaccio, this time destined for a bubbling pot of water, which, unfortunately, contained virtually no vinegar. Again the beef was rendered nearly inedible. The last courses partly redeemed the meal: a French-tasting plate of chewy beef cubes sautéed in butter and black pepper, and an excellent congee made with broken rice, giving the soup a superior delicacy.
A return visit demonstrated that our previous meal was not a fair road test of the kitchen's abilities. Charcoal-grilled pork chops ($8.50), duck with peanut sauce ($11), and crunchy Vietnamese crepes ($5) were especially well executed. But our favorite remained the warm beef salad ($8.50). Fortunately, you don't have to order the seven- course beef dinner to get it.
In 1998, the only barbecue in town worth a damn was hounded out of Long Island City, a victim of its own delicious smoke. After a worrisome year, Pearson's reopened in the back of a sports bar in Jackson Heights. On the original site eventually rose . . . another barbecue! PHILLY'S SMOKE HOUSE (5-16 51st Avenue, Queens, 718-338-RIBS) flaunts a rustic front porch comically squeezed between a pair of giant windowless obelisks, looking like the Bush administration's Ministry of Information. But alas, the menu failed to deliver on its barbecue promise. The brisket was rubbery and drenched with an indifferent red sauce; the slab of pork ribs arrived uncut, requiring a good deal of sawing to detach them. The smoked sausage, however, was pretty good, probably because it had been pre-smoked at the factory. Sides, too, were a mixed bag. While the biscuits and pinto beans were tasty, the leaden hush puppies and watery mac and cheese blew big time. Luckily, we had a car, and, braving the Saturday Queens traffic, propelled ourselves to PEARSON'S (71-04 35th Avenue, 718-779-7715), where we pushed our way past the sports fans and enjoyed exemplary, long-smoked pork ribs falling off the bone, and a brisket sandwich that was great, though a little less fatty than we would have liked. And there was no doubt the meat had actually been barbecued.
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