One of the great Vietnamese adaptations of French cooking is bò kho (beef stew), although its precise origin is somewhat murky. The French connection is not only that it’s a stew of braised beef but that it can be eaten with a baguette as popularly as rice or rice noodles. That’s where the similarities end because the flavors are unquestionably Vietnamese: an intriguing blend of beef-flavored broth, tomatoes, lemongrass and star anise. Here in the States, Vietnamese restaurants might have it on the menu though not nearly as much as pho. That’s a shame because for me it’s so soul-satisfying and comforting, especially when cold, damp weather casts its pall over the Northwest.
The Lemongrass in the Little Saigon district of Seattle serves it. But before I get to it, let me say that recently we’ve had less than satisfactory versions, one at Pho An Sandy in Portland and one at the Renton Lemongrass of the same chain. Regarding the latter, the Little Saigon and Renton versions were so different that it prompted a good friend of mine to comment on it to the Renton maitre d’ (or owner?), who protested that the recipe was the same. Oh-kay. The recipe might be the same, but the chef obviously wasn’t.
The beef stew here (☆☆☆☆) was exceptional. The broth was a perfect balance of flavors: tomato, beef, lemongrass, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, fish sauce, and possibly curry, with a touch of sweetness. The cubes of beef chuck were so tender that several fell apart as they were lifted out of the broth, testament to the long simmering they had undergone. Some pieces were attached to generous amounts of fat, ligament and tendon, not uncommon in Asian cooking. Other additions were tender carrot chunks, Thai basil, bean sprouts, cilantro and freshly ground pepper. I ordered my stew with rice noodles. My wife prefers hers with a baguette, which soaks up that wonderful broth. This is a dish to come back for time and again.
The stew was listed as a restaurant specialty. Also on the list was Hainan Chicken, a dish that has reached cult status in Singapore, though it had its humble origins on Hainan, an island off the coast of China. It made its way to parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, having undergone regional changes along the way. In its most common preparation, a whole chicken is immersed and simmered in liquid redolent with aromatics (especially ginger) and its resulting broth used to cook the rice. A variety of condiments accompany the chicken, dipping sauces of various kinds, including some made with chiles. Lemongrass served a small dish of salt and pepper, sliced jalapeños, and lime wedges, and a tart and garlicky dipping sauce. Some diners may balk at the chicken, my wife included, because braising leaves behind pale, oily and “goose”-bumpy skin, a far cry from the burnished crispiness produced by roasting. I wouldn’t have minded this dish (☆☆½) so much if it weren’t for the measly amount of meat; bone made up most of the substance of every cleaved piece. The salt & pepper and dipping sauce were nice accompaniments. The rice itself was very good with a gingery underscore. Lemongrass‘ version was finished off by baking in a metallic bowl that left behind a chewier rice and almost crusty bottom where nearly caramelized shallots added wonderful flavor.
Update: KirkJ, the friend who introduced us to this restaurant, informed us that the staff has changed since the review in this post. The stew also was not as good, suggesting that ownership (and the kitchen) has also changed.
1207 S Jackson St #106b