Seven courses of Christmas beef
Eating Chinese food on Christmas is a tradition in some American Jewish communities, since Chinese restaurants are the only places that stay open for it. Along with Jewish folks and much of Asia, most of world’s population doesn’t celebrate Christmas—which can be a bit hard to remember stateside.
Of course, Albuquerque’s dominant Asian community is Vietnamese. So borrowing from the spirit, if not the letter, of the Jewish Christmas meal, can I interest you in seven courses of beef instead? If you have a family in tow, or don’t mind a kid-friendly dining experience, a trip to Pho #1 on San Pedro is warranted.
On busy evenings, the dining room is patrolled by as many as four boys. The younger ones might be playing more than working; the oldest whizzes around on roller skates, having grabbed menus when he saw you walk in. He stops with a spin at your side and offers to seat you.
Calling your restaurant “Pho #1” sets the bar high, even if it’s as boilerplate a name as “Vietnamese Restaurant.” That said, the pho broth is clear and mildly fragrant. There’s hardly any grease in the soup, even when there’s a kaleidoscope of meats steeping in it—including pink slices of raw beef that change color like a wilting rose.
The vegetable pho is also impressive. It’s difficult to pack a bowl with that many veggies and still have a good balance of broth to sip. Straw mushrooms, baby corn, crinkle-cut carrots, broccoli, cilantro, onion and green onion slices all float harmoniously with softly crisp tofu chunks.
On the other side of the spectrum is my favorite bowl of pho onsite: the number 38 “special spice lemongrass beef soup.” The broth is reddened with dry chile flakes, burnished with peanuts, and flavored with cilantro and sate, a spice also known as Szechuan pepper. Cucumber, tomato, onion and green onion slices float on top, while beneath the surface lurk several types of beef—brisket, raw slices, tripe and beef ball—in an orderly pile above the noodles.
There’s hardly any grease in the soup, even when there’s a kaleidoscope of meats steeping in it—including pink slices of raw beef that change color like a wilting rose.
The menu, which has plenty going on besides rice noodle soup, is thankfully not as long as many Vietnamese menus. And there’s plenty for herbivores to chew on. The vegetarian salad is mountainous, with shredded carrot, cabbage, cucumber, green and purple basil, mint, and a surprising dose of shiso leaf, tossed with chunks of crispy tofu and a spicy soy-based dressing. The spring rolls are tight and crunchy. There are even a few items that are fairly Chinese, for any Jewish-Christmas celebrators out there who might be interested. The cashew nut dishes (shrimp or tofu) come in a rich, sweet tomato curry amid nuts and veggies galore.
Each table in the dining room has a swiveling caddy that dispenses spoons, chopsticks, sauces and other condiments. They are restocked by the boys, sometimes on skates. When the mother of the boys takes your order, she says “thank you” after each dish is requested. At the end of the meal, she hands you your credit card back with two hands.
On one of my visits, a nearby table of six consumed three orders of bo 7 mon, aka seven courses of beef, a traditional Vietnamese celebration meal.
It begins with thin-sliced beef that you cook at the table in a pineapple-laced vinegar fondue. The slices are then rolled into DIY spring rolls, along with fixings from a shockingly large plate of lettuce, shredded carrots, cucumbers, sprouts and jalapeño. This is followed by another U-cook course of fragrant slices of lemongrass-marinated beef sprinkled with sesame seeds, which you fry in butter. What could be called “Vietnamese beef seviche” comes next—lime-marinated slices with basil, peanuts and black pepper. A single plate contains two more courses. The first dish is meatballs cooked with leaves flown in fresh from Hawaii. The other is a spiced meat loaf served on a glass noodle matrix and garnished with shrimp crackers—all three of which should be eaten simultaneously for the correct effect. The bo 7 mon ends with a bowl of beef congee, yet another Vietnamese comfort soup. Rice is slowly overcooked in plenty of liquid until reaching the consistency of diluted Cream of Wheat, and beef bits and ginger are added.
It’s the kind of soup you want to eat this time of year, in the cold dark days around winter solstice—no matter what your relationship is with Christmas.