One of my favorite Vietnamese meals is bò 7 món, translated as seven courses of beef for non-Vietnamese speakers or “BEEEEEEEEEEF!!!” for beef lovers.
The first time I tried bò 7 món was in my early teens. We were visiting family in Montreal and my uncle and aunt wanted to take us out for a special dinner. I didn’t have the same appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine back then as I do now, (my mother used to spend a whole day cooking pho from scratch and my ungrateful reaction would be, “ugh, pho again?”) but I clearly remember falling in love with this beef-filled meal and from that day on seeking it out every time I was in a “Vietnamese” city. I’ve tried it in at least 3 different cities that I can remember – Montreal, Honolulu, Boston – and although the number of courses stay the same, there are slight variations on the beef preparation. Montreal was my favorite and Boston was good but the least authentic.
Here’s a rundown of what you’d expect to find in a bò 7 món meal:
1. Gỏi bò: a salad made with pickled carrot, pickled daikon, and celery salad with thin strips of beef in nước mắm
2. Bò nhúng dấm: Raw slices of beef to be cooked in a heated vinegar broth
3. Bò nướng mỡ chài: Ground beef rolled in pork belly fat
4. Bò lá lốt: Ground beef rolled in betel leaf (or grape leave, less traditional)
5. Bò nướng hành: Strips of beef rolled around scallion or onions
6. Bò chả đùm: Beef meatballs served with shrimp flavored rice crackers
7. Cháo Bò: Beef congee
Dish #2 is wrapped in rice paper, rice noodles, and various herbs and raw vegetables. Dishes #3, #4, and #5 are served together and can also be wrapped in rice paper or lettuce and eaten as a summer roll. One of my favorite parts of the meal is the dipping sauce, mắm nêm, which is a very pungent mix of fermented anchovies and crushed pineapples that can be considered a biological weapon outside of Vietnam. I’ve only met a few people in my life who will eat the sauce. Most people take a whiff of it and give me a look like I’m a noseless freak who has lost all sense of smell and reason. More sauce for me! I’ve been to places that have served their own variation of bò 7 món, e.g. Pho 2000 in Boston has a course of raw beef dipped in hot melted butter at the table as the second dish (first time I’ve ever had that), but most places stick to the standard preparation described above.
Traditionally, bò 7 món is served at weddings since it can be rather time consuming to prepare. Nowadays, you can find this elaborate meal at some Vietnamese restaurants in cities that have large Vietnamese populations, such as Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles or Montreal, just to name a few. I live in NYC and I’m sure that I can find a restaurant here that serves bò 7 món, but most of the Vietnamese restaurants here pale in comparison to those other cities that I mentioned so I avoid going to eat Vietnamese here unless I have a sudden craving for a Vietnamese dish that I can’t prepare myself. So, if you’re in a city with a large Vietnamese demographic and you love beef, then you MUST make haste to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant and get your 7 course beef on. You will not regret it.
Here are a couple places that I’ve tried recently for those of you who are fortunate enough to live in or near these cities.
Pho 2000, Boston: They’re well-known for their bò 7 món and their special whole catfish meal which were both delicious. They had all the fixins except for the shaved green banana peel and they prepared some of dishes differently than more traditional bò 7 món that I’ve had but it still satisfies my craving. The sauce is also prepared slightly differently from other places that I’ve visited but I’ll take it.
Ong Ca Can, Montreal: This place tries to be all upscale and fancy, which I don’t care for at all, but their bò 7 món is good. I’ve been to a couple other places when I was younger but I don’t remember the names. This restaurant one happens to be the most recent one I’ve visitied. Try it if you don’t have locals to recommend other places for bò 7 món.