The Dorchester neighborhood of Fields Corner has long been a center of Vietnamese culture — and cuisine — in the city. Last week, as the country marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a section of the neighborhood was officially designated a cultural district: Boston Little Saigon, the realization of an idea first conceived by several community members in 2014.
“Now there’s a place of belonging,” says Annie Le, board president of Boston Little Saigon. “It means we’re part of the Boston community now. For Vietnamese folks who left Vietnam and built a new life here, the name means something to them. There are great restaurants, great events, and great things already happening in the area. Our biggest work is to help support and market it.”
Spanning parts of Dorchester Avenue and Adams, Charles, and Park streets, Boston Little Saigon is dense with Vietnamese businesses and organizations. Here are the bilingual, bicultural Au Co preschool and Van Lang language school, the Vietnamese American Community Center, law offices and salons, art galleries and accountants. The bright yellow gates of Chua Luc Hoa Buddhist Center open to a serene garden filled with statuary.
And then there are the restaurants, cafes, and markets. Here, one can slurp steaming bowls of pho scented with star anise and stocked with multiple cuts of beef; crunch into crisp banh mi fat with pate and pickled vegetables; chill out on a cool day with che, Vietnamese desserts layered with boba, pandan jelly, and fresh coconut; and purchase fresh produce, glistening seafood, and a lifetime supply of rice vermicelli. Here are some of the best places to eat and shop in and around Boston Little Saigon. (Although this guide focuses on Vietnamese cuisine, don’t forget to visit other area standouts, such as Southern-Asian fusion restaurant 50Kitchen, disco brunch haven Blend, and ice cream experts Chill on Park.)
A-C Farm Market Your friendly neighborhood market, selling big bags of fresh herbs, cases of perfectly ripe mangoes, and more condiments, spices, and noodle varieties than could reasonably be expected to fit in this Narnia wardrobe of a shop. 1429 Dorchester Ave., 617-282-2338.
Anh Hong The menu at this longtime favorite offers bubbling hot pots, more than a dozen seafood dishes, a section devoted to frog legs, and plenty of vegetarian fare. But the specialty is bo 7 mon, a seven-course feast of beef dishes to share with a companion. There’s also a fish version, ca 7 mon. 291 Adams St., 617-265-8889, www.anhhongboston.com.
Bambu In a little strip of businesses, right beside Sweet Sip (see below), this outpost of a North American chain feels distinctly local thanks to the warmth of the staff. It’s got bubble tea and Vietnamese coffee, smoothies and juices, but its forte is che crowned in shaved ice. There’s a head-swimming variety; helpful wall art describing the options steers customers to the refreshment of their dreams, be it the Smashed Avocado (avocado, pearls, several jellies, and condensed milk) or the Bambu Favorite (red tapioca, grass jelly, pandan jelly, and coconut milk). If you’re in need of extra bolstering, order some rau ma, or pennywort, a green herb that serves as a tonic. 287 Adams St., 617-533-7030, www.drinkbambu.com.
Bep Bui Just outside the formal boundaries of Boston Little Saigon, this charming little shop on an industrial stretch deserves mention for its assortment of delicious street foods, from banh cuon, steamed rice rolls, to banh mi que, skinny sandwiches filled with pate, meats, fried eggs. Ca phe sua da, the Vietnamese iced coffee, is offered alongside the likes of sweet-tart peach tea with orange and lemongrass. On the shelves, freeze-dried durian and squid jerky mingle with Doritos and peanut M&Ms. 95 Freeport St., 617-533-8070.
Chau’s Bakery The mission is evident from the racks and cases of torpedo-shaped loaves: If you have $5 or so, a banh mi can be yours, filled with the likes of cold cuts and beef. The shop also sells plain bread for 50 cents a loaf, which feels like a community service. (Just across the street, more banh mi are available at Dot Cafe, alongside subs, pancakes, and kielbasa specials.) 1456 Dorchester Ave., 617-288-8809.
Coco Leaf A neighborhood treasure, this cafe serves up satisfying sweets and savories. (Co-owner Somath Om used to work at O Ya.) Che come in myriad iterations, along with bubble tea and smoothies. Crepes brim with matcha custard cream, strawberries, and green tea ice cream, or ham, eggs, and Mornay sauce. Don’t miss the curried fish balls and popcorn chicken, excellent snacks. There’s also a branch on Newbury Street. 1480 Dorchester Ave., 617-506-0010, www.cocoleafboston.com.
Hien Vuong A homey, family-run shop with a deep menu. It’s best known for its bun mam, a fermented fish soup, but the cooking here is just good, down to the curative pho ga with its pure, clear broth. 1487 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, 617-282-9791.
Pho 2000 Pho 2000 serves very fine pho, along with a good rendition of the spicy beef noodle soup bun bo hue. Bo 7 mon, offered here too, is a big draw. But the main attraction might be the ca nuong, whole crispy catfish served family style, with all the fixings for making your own rice paper rolls. 198 Adams St., 617-436-1908, www.pho2000boston.com
Pho Hoa and Reign Drink Labs At Pho Hoa, the specialty is in the name, and the pho is what to order. Restaurateur Tam Le’s family opened the place in 1991, when he was 11. The designation of Boston Little Saigon is in many ways a salute to the older generations of Vietnamese immigrants. “They left Vietnam and had very, very traumatizing, difficult experiences and came here to provide a better future for their families,” he says. “At the end of the day, all it is honestly is recognition. Putting a name on something. To be able to do that, it’s a way of saying thank you. And letting them know our culture and heritage is important. We’re going to do our best to carry on that legacy.” The building at 1370 Dorchester Ave. is a neat summation of that: Pho Hoa, three decades in, serving gorgeous bowls of pho dac biet loaded with chewy tripe, fatty flank, rare eye round steak, and more — consistently excellent for all these years. And around the corner, beside a beautiful mural celebrating the Vietnamese-American community, is Le’s new-school Reign Drink Lab — hosting doughnut pop-ups, collaborating with Braintree’s Widowmaker Brewing on a double milk stout made with Vietnamese coffee, and serving up strong coffee drinks, vibrant teas, and more. The staff at Reign all live in Dorchester, Le points out. They represent the community’s future. 1370 Dorchester Ave. Pho Hoa, 617-287-9746, www.phohoarestaurant.com. Reign Drink Lab, 617-863-7353, www.reigndrinklab.com.
Pho Le Who does it best? You’ll have to try Pho Le’s crispy catfish, bo 7 mon, bun bo hue, and pho and decide for yourself. Banh xeo, a giant golden rice flour crepe, is a good order here, and don’t forget the flan for dessert. The restaurant is run by the Le family that started the original Pho Pasteur chain back in the day. 1356 Dorchester Ave., 617-506-6294
Saigon Chicken House When a restaurant has “pho” in the name, order pho. When a restaurant has “chicken” in its name ... Saigon Chicken House specializes in ga di bo, or walking chicken, which is much more poetic than simply saying “free range.” The meat is lean, firm, and flavorful. Try it steamed with gingery fish sauce, or roasted or fried crisp with rice and vegetables. Non-poultry highlights here include banana flower salad and bo ne, or beef Napoleon, served on a sizzling cow-shaped platter with a fried egg, baguette, and crinkle-cut fries. The incredibly nice staff is generous with suggestions and iced tea on a hot day while you wait for takeout. 223 Adams St., 617-436-8888
Saigon Seafood Restaurant Along with a lengthy traditional menu, this restaurant features Viet-Cajun seafood boils with live crawfish, baby clams, green shell mussels, snow crab, and shrimp with heads on or off. (Not to be confused with Sai Gon One Restaurant at 1331 Dorchester Ave., where offerings range from bun mam to crab rangoon to many iterations of lobster.) 270 Adams St., 617-265-1008
Sweet Sip Never has a place been so aptly named. It’s a delightful enchanted sugar-spun world inside this shop, next to Bambu. (Another branch is coming soon to South Shore Plaza.) Hello, rolled ice cream in more than two dozen flavors, from coconut pandan to mint Oreo. Hello, taro froyo topped with fruits and candies and mochi and nine flavors of boba. Hello, egg puff waffles with ice cream and butterfly pea teas in aurora borealis hues. Should you order the Purple Rain milk tea? Is there really any question? 285 Adams St., 617-506-0745, www.sweetsipboston.com
Truong Thinh II Super Market With a glorious blast of air conditioning, you’re in. Peruse rows of plentiful variety: so many kinds of fish sauce, so many brands of coconut milk, every width and dimension of rice vermicelli your little heart desires. Pick up a weighty durian and a half-dozen kinds of cooking greens, soy milk and dried bean curd, fresh rice noodles and sacks of rice, and whole tilapia, bluefish, and bass and skate, snails, and squid. There are kitchen goods for sale, too. 1305 Dorchester Ave., 617-929-0539
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.