I smell Pho in the air.
I wish I had the money to fly to Vietnam for a street food adventure, but I’m actually in the heart of Dorchester, Boston. Fields Corner to be exact. The Vietnamese town in Boston.
Pho is a Vietnamese dish cooked with either beef or chicken broth, served with rice noodles and fresh lime, basil leaves and bean sprouts. And Fields Corner in Dorchester is the center for the 20,000 Vietnamese living in Boston. As soon as you get off at the Fields Corner MBTA station, the streets are filled with shops with Vietnamese signs, the supermarkets here sell at least 10 different brands of spring roll wrap, and between houses there is a giant white statue of Kuan Yin, a Buddhist goddess.
Dorchester is a part of the city many Bostonians generally avoid, as it is known for its high crime rate due to gang violence. But when I ask Evelyn Darling, how many times has she been robbed?
“Never, “ said Darling, who has worked in the area for the past 10 years. “It is a popular saying in the media, but if you're living and working here, that is not necessarily the reality. People here are not scared for their lives walking down the street. It’s totally fake.”
She did admit that it is still not a crime-free city. And I agree with her. If you want an adventure, exploring an exotic urban city, Fields Corner is the place to be. I remember walking by a bakery on Dorchester Avenue. The bakery doesn’t have the usual neon lights with Vietnamese characters and the windows are not transparent. Looking from the streets, no one can really guess what exactly the shop is selling.
They might have the most delicious bread in the city, who knows?
So I pushed the door open. Instead of the smell of fresh baked bread, I was engulfed in the smoke of cigarettes. Vietnamese love songs on YouTube were playing loudly on the TV hanging on the wall. Click, click and cheers, a group of men ranging in age from early twenties to sixties gather around tables, playing Chinese chess.
The owner approached and asked me what would I like to order. There wasn't any item on the counter for me to choose. I asked for the menu. The owner shook his head. Wanting to see what was cooking, I glanced to the kitchen where the chess-playing customers routinely run in and out. But the owner moved his body and blocked my view of the kitchen. No matter how many times I tried, the 40-ish owner from South Vietnam with five babies and the sixth on the way, will do anything to block my view. Before I step out of this mystery bakery, I asked one of the chess playing men, what do you get from winning a match of chess?
He raised his head, and looked at me with eyes like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. He rubbed his thumb with his middle finger. “Money money,” he said with a big smile.
Bread actually is a big part of Vietnamese cuisine. After being occupied by the French for more than 80 years. the vietnamese bakeries usually have the capability to bake a decent baguette.
The Ba Le Restaurant and Bakery is a can’t-miss spot for anyone passing Fields Corner. This 55- year-old small family-run Vietnamese sandwich and snack shop is always packed, but you never have to wait too long for your delicious $3.50 Sandwich.
There are always baguettes warmed up, ready for order. The sandwich lady can slice your bread, spread the yellow butter and brown chicken liver foie gras, stuff a load of Vietnamese traditional ham, lemongrass grilled beef or pork, topped with daikon, carrot pickle and fresh coriander in minutes.
I stood in front of the counter, amazed by her speed and dizzied with the colors and freshness of the ingredients. I can’t stop myself from asking how many sandwiches she can make in a day?
The sandwich lady, who referred to me as honey, replied “Oh too many, I lost count,” while taking another order from the line of customers, which was made up of a mix of ethnicities.
A group of five nervous-looking teenage boys, each holding bags of sandwiches, catches my eye. They are all recent immigrants from Vietnam living in New Hampshire. I pointed at their bags of sandwiches and asked one of them how many sandwiches can you eat? “It’s for my family and for my neighbors. We don’t have shops like this in New Hampshire,” said one of the boys.
I also recommend sitting by the only two seats in the shop and watching the customers. This tiny sandwich shop serves as a community center. Almost every customer knows each other, getting a warm hug, one after another, in and out of the door.
After spending a couple hours around Fields Corner, I suspect that the relationship between the shop owners and the customers is the main reason why you can find high quality food in this area. Going to a restaurant is almost like going home.
While I was having lunch at another well-known restaurant, Thao Ngoc on Dorchester Avenue on a Saturday afternoon, customers entered in groups. They would give the waiter a nod, and the right dish would show up on their table. No matter how busy owner Thuy Huynh was, she always found time to sit down for a chat.
Huynh is a petite woman with short hair and high check bones when she smiles. She is known for her hospitality and famous rice chowder. I accidentally discover a tragic story when I asked her the reason behind opening a restaurant.
Her husband was killed in a bicycle accident in 2010. “I have no skills but I have a mother and two young daughters to take care of. And I only know how to cook traditional Vietnamese food,” said Huynh in Vietnamese, the only language she knows. The 47-year-old Huynh ran a food stand in a village in the south of Vietnam before arriving at Fields Corner in Massachusetts 10 years ago.
Thus, Thao Ngoc restaurant was opened in the end of 2012. Rice slow cooked in either thick pork broth or crab broth. Mixed with homemade meatball and pork intestines. The Huynh that served me the rice chowder and the Huynh that answered my questions were completely different people. She went from a shy Vietnamese woman with limited language skills, to a proud chef and a brave immigrant mother.
This is not the Dorchester you see on the news, but the real life in the city. Don’t be intimidated by the exotic food or foreign language menus in Fields Corner. Get on the T and go for an adventure in the Vietnamese town of Boston.