The key to enjoying Vietnamese "beef seven ways" -- or at least five of them -- is knowing how to roll rice paper.
When you order this fixed-price meal at Le Cheval in Oakland, a flock of servers soon swirls by your table, depositing enough stuff to crowd out your chopsticks as they pass. Along with a propane burner, they deliver a stack of silvery white rounds the size of saucers -- sheets of rice paper -- and pour boiling water into a large bowl. Platters appear, heaped with bean sprouts, lettuce leaves, pickled carrots, mint, cilantro, and rau ram, which looks like Thai basil and tastes like double-strength cilantro.
When wet, those stiff white rounds transform into the translucent, slightly leathery wrap that encases the Vietnamese spring rolls you've eaten dozens of times. For this meal, the rice paper is an essential part of beef ways two through six: You dunk each disk in the bowl of water and spread it out on your plate. While it softens and becomes translucent, you pile on beef, herbs, and veggies. Then you roll the paper up.
Seems easy enough. But rice paper can be as delicate as phyllo dough and as sticky as Saran Wrap. After a decade of forming lumpy, torn rice-paper rolls that spewed their ingredients into my dipping sauce, a few years ago I bought a couple of packets of rice paper to practice with. I eventually came up with a working method: Now I place no more than a quarter-cup of fillings in a rectangle in the center of the round, leaving an inch or two blank at the bottom. I fold that bottom flap up over the filling, then roll from one side to the other, pressing tightly as I go. Some sprouts and bits of beef may stick out of the top, but hey, it holds together.
Beef seven ways is a humdinger of an action meal, more fun than mystery theater dinner and neater than a crab boil. According to Mai Pham, author of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, restaurants specializing in beef seven ways can be found throughout Vietnam. It's a relatively modern phenomenon, however, which sprang up in the 1950s and '60s, when French colonists popularized beef in a country where pork, chicken, and fish had long been dominant (pho, the beef-noodle soup that's now tied to Vietnam's national identity, sprang up during the same time). Even now, Pham says, "beef is not eaten in great amounts. It's a rather expensive piece of protein, so when it is eaten the Vietnamese make a special meal of it."
Several Oakland restaurants offer beef seven ways, and Le Cheval is the most swank among them. The downtown favorite, as big as a modest airplane hangar, is always crammed, which means that you may not get too much hands-on assistance with the process, but you will be able to practice far out of sight of rice-paper-rolling pros.
Appropriately enough, Le Cheval's First Way is raw -- a sort of beef ceviche, sheets of lean sirloin marinated in lemon juice so they "cook," or firm up and lose their blood-red color. The beef is laid out on a platter with ginger, chopped peanuts, and shaved white onions scattered overtop. The profusion of sharp, earthy, crunchy, aromatic notes skitter and converge over the low, sweet thrum of the meat.
Next, the waiters bring out a pot containing sweetened rice vinegar and set it on the burner. Then they lay down a plate of bright-red raw sirloin, as thin as the rice-paper rounds. Here is where the construction part comes in: Once the vinegar starts bubbling, you cook the beef in it and wrap the meat in rice paper with any combination of vegetables and herbs, dipping the rolls in nuoc cham, a clear, sweet-tart offshoot of fish dipping sauce. After round two is over, the cooks whisk away the pot and replace it with a domed cast-iron grill, and deliver another plate of raw beef, this one marinated with lemongrass. More rolls.
Courses four through six arrive together, already cooked and ready for wrapping and dipping and noshing. Bo cha dum is a mild, spongy meatloaf studded with cellophane noodles and peas. Small logs of bo mo chai, a heartier beef sausage, are encased in caul fat, a translucent, weblike membrane that melts as it cooks, basting the meat inside. Bo la lot is ground beef wrapped in la lot, peppery betel leaves that crinkle and blacken on the grill. Rice porridge with scallions, ginger, and nubbins of beef appears at the end, a bland, homey denouement.
The beef seven ways at New Pagolac at International and 8th Avenue is almost as good. Plus, the restaurant, which is a little over a year old, charges only $18 a person, compared to Le Cheval's $25. Chalk up the seven-dollar difference to decor: New Pagolac is rough around the images, white walls and white tiles decorated with bucolic Vietnamese scenes painted in electric blues and greens. Half empty at night, the place attracts teenage couples slurping pho and families sharing hot pots -- the restaurant's dinner menu contains an intriguing selection of hot pots, curries, and even venison, all worth further investigation. During my visit, a dozen men drank beer and watched a Raiders game on the restaurant's wide-screen projection TV. A second television broadcast tapes of a cross between sing-along karaoke, American Idol, and Solid Gold. The couple that owns the restaurant oversees a pair of waitresses who are happy to demonstrate how to eat each course, and just as willing to correct you when you get it wrong.
There are a few subtle differences between the meals at the two restaurants: New Pagolac substitutes a crisp, bright salad of lettuce, cucumber, daikon, carrot, mint, and lemon-marinated beef for the ceviche. It eliminates the grill-it-yourself course, replacing it with a fourth sausage, this one studded with lemongrass, wrapped in sirloin slices, and not quite as tasty. To their herb platters, the cooks add chalky underripe banana slices, a tangle of skinny rice noodles, and rau tia to, red shiso leaves that taste like mint and hazelnuts and go particularly well with beef.
The chef serves all seven courses with New Pagolac's unique dipping sauce, a funky, spicy wash of flavor that melds fish sauce, lime juice, and -- I suspect but can't confirm -- lemongrass and strawberries. At once fruity and pungent, the sauce should not be sampled on its own. But when you dip rice-paper rolls of lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, lightly seasoned beef, and mint, which are all crunch and aroma, the shock of the sauce sets off every tastebud you've ever lost track of. The effect is like bringing in Yngwie Malmsteen to jam with a flute-and-drum corps, minus the horror factor. (If you want the milder, more traditional nuoc cham, just ask.)
New Pagolac also owns the greatest invention Vietnamese cuisine has ever seen: Each diner is given a pink plastic flip-book, whose "leaves" hold softened rice-paper rounds. That takes care of half the struggle. The rest is up to you.
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