Boston proper has an incredible dining scene of mid-range to high-end restaurants, mostly concentrated in the dense downtown neighborhoods within a couple of miles of the State House: the South and North Ends, Back Bay, Fort Point, Beacon Hill. But to really appreciate its breadth, your scope has to be wider, embracing residential neighborhoods like Chinatown, Allston, Jamaica Plain and Eastie. If you’re not regularly visiting Dorchester for traditional Vietnamese cuisine, for instance, you’re only skimming the surface. To truly earn your food-geek stripes, you need to hit places like Thao Ngoc, a small, brightly lit space in Fields Corner, a hike that will reward your intrepidity with ravishing food at astonishing prices.
You might start with a special of Vietnamese mini-crepes (bánh khot, $8.95) made from rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric, filled with mung bean sprouts, shrimp and scallions, cooked in a steel mold like a Danish ebelskiver pan. You wrap each of these little beauties in lettuce leaves along with fresh mint and basil; then dip it in a sweet-sour mixture of fish sauce (Vietnam’s delicious version of soy sauce flavored with fermented anchovies), sugar, garlic and chilies. Who could find fried chicken wings (cánh gà chiên, $6.50 for five) a challenge? These big whole wings are marinated in fish sauce, sugar and garlic, lightly dredged in cornstarch, deep-fried and dotted with hot chilies—not unlike teriyaki wings, but spicier, more fascinating. Grilled Vietnamese ham rolls (nem cuon, $3.95 for two) are the familiar fresh rolls of rice vermicelli, julienned carrots and cucumber wrapped in translucent, soft rice-paper wrappers, served with a sweet-sour dipping sauce. Instead of more common proteins like shrimp or tofu, these include Vietnamese “ham,” aka giò lua, a fine-grained garlicky pork sausage sliced into rectangles and fried crisp: a welcome novelty.
Duck thigh salad (goi vit, $7.95) nests a few boiled, thick-sliced duck thighs over a salad of shredded cabbage, carrots and onion, topped with fresh cilantro and mint and crushed peanuts with a sweet-sour dressing. The result is light yet satisfying (but be careful with the bones). Sea conch salad (goi oc, $19.95) takes fresh conch out of its shell, slices it thin and stir-fries it to reduce its natural toughness, then tosses it into a salad of cabbage, carrot and onion dusted with sesame seed. Scoop some up with saucer-shaped rice crackers and spoon on a thin tart dressing based on rice vinegar with a lot of julienned fresh ginger. It’s a lovely, subtly flavored seafood dish. Grilled clam with scallion and peanut (nghêu nuong mo hành, $12.95) is not only gorgeous and tasty but a steal, offering a good dozen fresh littlenecks simply grilled, topped with a dressing of scallions, fish sauce and garlic, sprinkled with chopped peanuts and served with simple condiments of mixed salt and pepper with fresh limes to squeeze over them.
Green salad soup with shrimp, pork and tofu (canh cai be xanh tôm thit, $10.95 small, $16.95 large) cooks chopped mustard greens in a simple broth piquantly flavored with reconstituted dried shrimp and tiny, loose meatballs of ground pork—fresh, light and meant for sharing. Vietnamese crab thick noodle soup (bánh canh cua, $7.95) is far more rich and beguiling with its golden rice-thickened seafood broth. It’s loaded with thick, chewy Vietnamese rice/tapioca-flour noodles reminiscent of udon, chunks of Dungeness crabmeat and a gnarly chunk of pork trotter, given wonderful additional aromas with scallions, cilantro and lemongrass. Goat hot pot (lau dê, $29.95 small, $45.95 large) is a head-turner that demands a large party. Its copious chunks of goat, lotus root slices and hairy nuggets of taro warm to a boil over a tabletop burner in a dazzlingly complex, deep-flavored broth. Accompaniments to stir in include a tall pile of greens, tofu chunks and thin fresh yellow rice noodles, plus an unusual, funky, miso-like condiment. Caramelized catfish and pork (ca thit khó to, $12.95) coats thin fillets of catfish and thin slices of pork belly in a syrupy sauce of caramelized sugar given fierce aromatic depth with shallots, garlic and black pepper. Chinese influence is evident in lobster with ginger and scallions (lobster xào hành gung, $22.95). Climb a stepstool to select two Maine lobsters out of the dining room’s live tank with tongs. These are cut into pieces and cracked, the exposed meat dusted with flour to add a light coating when steamed, the sauce a simple admixture of soy sauce, ginger and scallions. (Don’t feel bad about using a fork to pick the meat from the shell.) It’s perfectly simple and scandalously bargain-priced.
Beverages include iced and hot coffees with sweetened condensed milk ($3.50), fresh limeade ($3.25) and smoothies ($3.50) in flavors like strawberry, coconut and avocado. Service is friendly and patient with English speakers, though you may want to order using menu numbers to avoid miscommunication. The ambience is bare-boned; no cloth napkins or fancy accoutrements here—the money goes into the kitchen. Bring a few friends and order up a feast that rarely tops $20 a head, and you will start to understand what our late, beloved mayor Tom Menino often said: The heart and soul of Boston’s restaurant scene is found in its humble, family-run neighborhood spots, of which Thao Ngoc is a nearly perfect example.
-Grilled clam with scallion and peanut
-Goat hot pot
-Caramelized catfish and pork
-Lobster with ginger and scallions
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 10 am-10 pm; Fri.-Sat., 10 am-11 pm
Thao Ngoc, 1331 Dorchester Ave., Boston (617-506-1224) facebook.com/thaongocrestaurant