It took me six years eating steaks and potatoes and one evening of eating beef sausages rolled with greens and rice paper to realize that perhaps the best way to eat meat is to eat it with vegetables. No hard feelings, dear steak, you are like pure chocolate, and bulgogi in lettuce wrap is like orange flavored chocolate. Then you add pickled carrots and daikon, minty herbs, rice paper, sweet and sour nước mắm, and the beef is bound to take off just like the Apollo 11.
Such revelation dawned on me when I took the first bite of a bò lá lốt roll at Ánh Hồng in Berkeley. Ánh Hồng was famous in the old Saigon for their creation of the seven courses of beef, a menu that other Vietnamese restaurants quickly imitated to serve big parties. Despite knowing the menu’s popularity, I rarely thought of its main items as desirable, simply because, for instance, I wasn’t a fan of the wild betel leaf (lá lốt in Vietnamese and cha phloo in Thai) that wraps outside the ground beef. It’s usually a little bitter, and it overshadows the meat flavor. But Ánh Hồng really proves that their popularity (4 locations in North California and another 2 in the southern part) is backed up by some solid tasty goods. Somehow, unlike any I’ve tried before, their bò lá lốt is not at all bitter.
Their bánh tráng (rice paper) is also perfect for making fresh spring rolls, thin enough so that you can taste every ingredient, yet elastic enough to stretch and wrap up the sharp corner of lettuce stems without rupturing. The traditionalcondiment to dip the rolls is mắm nêm (fermented fish paste), but to accommodate foreigners (and Vietnamese like me :-P) who aren’t familiar with the sauce’s pungency, Ánh Hồng serves things up with sweet and sour nước mắm (salty fish extract mixed with lime, chili pepper and sugar). It’s amazing how nước mắm works with everything. But, because the meat is already so well seasoned, you don’t have to dip the rolls into any sauce to make the flavors shine.
As much as the bò lá lốt turns out far better than expected, I would still say that it’s not the best course in the set. Bò nướng sả (lemongrass grilled beef slices) rolled up with sauteed sweet onion in the core raises the bar by a slight amount, and the succulent sausages of bò mỡ chài (ground beef wrapped in a thin, lacey layer of pig’s omental fat) definitely takes first place. Of course, all taste best when wrapped in greens.
What’s even better is the joy of legitimate playing with your food: you pick , you wrap, you roll, you dip. It’s a feast whether you go alone or with company. It’s feasting South Vietnam style.
Address: Ánh Hồng Restaurant – 7 Courses of Beef
2067 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
Sample plate – 3 courses of beef (bò lá lốt, bò nướng sả, bò mỡ chài): 9 rolls for $12
*Why would I walk half a mile to feast alone on a Friday evening? Because this post is to celebrate my “uncle” turning 23. He likes Vietnamese, meat, and Southerners’ dishes. Happy Birthday, Nguyên! 🙂