Thai-Vietnamese gem hits high notes
Inexpensive restaurants in the Symphony area don’t need to try very hard. That section of Massachusetts Avenue is a fault line, where the massive appetites of Northeastern students collide with a daytime throng of Berklee students. At night, wary suits and dresses who make a beeline for Symphony Hall have already dined to the tony east.
Out of view, across from $2.68 pizza slices and the gutted shell of a mini strip mall, the Thai-Vietnamese fusion restaurant Pho Basil treats its clientele - in jeans, sweat pants, and hoodies - like kings. The dining room is sparkling white; floral arrangements adorn the walls. The service brings to mind magazine ads for exclusive Asian airlines: attentive, warm, anticipatory even. It’s an utterly unexpected upgrade for the coach-class price.
Nearly all the cheap eateries in the neighborhood are packed. But the energy here is different. You see diners really enjoying themselves. The menu is full of well-prepared Thai and Vietnamese dishes, as well as some fusions of the two - from the exotic, to the authentic, to the familiar.
Thai chef Wasun Lerddeekunlam, of the South End’s now-defunct haut-Vietnamese hot spot Pho Republique, is head chef at Pho Basil. In many dishes, and in the ambience even, you feel some of the magic of the late, beloved Republique.
Wild boar ($10.95) is served here as a saute with mushrooms, fried basil leaves, eggplant, and haricots verts in a spicy white wine chili sauce ($10.95). The boar - essentially a high-quality pork - is tender, textured, and mild, seasoned and cooked with subtlety and finesse.
Beef cinnamon curry ($10.95) is an astonishing dish. Spicy, tender flank steak is somehow seared so caramelized coconut milk clings to the surface. Cinnamon sticks sizzle in the wok as well, imparting a second layer of fragrant spice. The meat is served with firm, fresh vegetables (pea pods, broccoli, mushrooms, more haricots verts), still nicely crisp, in a green cinnamon curry over rice. It takes discipline to order other dishes on subsequent visits.
A red “Oh-nooo-Mr.-Bill’’ face appears next to spicy dishes on the menu. Both these dishes receive two red faces, the highest listed. But the scale should refer to the complexity of the spice. Neither is aggressively spicy, both are dazzlingly complex.
Fish basil ($14.95, and proudly disclosed as fresh tilapia) matches the flavor of the familiar Chinatown Vietnamese fried-whole fish swimming in crispy basil leaves, sauteed onion, and sliced ginger. Here it’s also cooked quite perfectly. But this version is a boneless fillet, an unconventional hat trick of sorts that, for some, could make Massachusetts Avenue the preferred destination for this dish. As a bonus, sliced red chili peppers provide an accidental and explosive blast of heat. Until you stumble upon them in the dish, you will have no idea why the menu bills it as two red faces.
And then there’s the pho ($6.50 to $9.95) - waitstaff will politely remind you it is properly pronounced “fuh’’ - the traditional Vietnamese soup featuring house-made stock, onion, scallion, thin rice noodles, raw bean sprouts, basil leaves, a lime wedge, and impressively tender meats. Pho Basil offers dozens of traditional and imaginative variations.
Even the simplest and most typical of Vietnamese plates, com ga ($7.95), demonstrates an attention to quality. Grilled chicken accompanies sliced tomato, cucumber, and lettuce, a scoop of jasmine rice, and the restaurant’s own nuoc cham (a traditional mixture of sweet vinegar, fish sauce, lime, and garlic). A fried egg ($2 extra) is a popular addition.
It would take a year of weekly trips to exhaust the menu of this affordable off-campus spot. Sweat pants or bow ties, all are welcome to try.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.