Beef: It’s what’s for dinner

A food writer must keep her hard working mouth in tip-top shape, so I visit my beloved dentist, Dr. Stanley Tong, every six months. Just as often his efficient Vietnamese-Chinese technician, Elvie Lam — who I’ve never encountered out of a clear shower cap, goggles, rubber gloves and blue medical gown — tells me to try Anh Hong, a 22-year-old Vietnamese restaurant on Geary near Hyde, for the seven-course beef meal.

After about five years of hearing this, I finally broke down and found the place, almost unnoticeable behind an unsigned storefront. Expecting a Tenderloin-ish hole, I found, instead, an immaculate, spacious dining room with low acoustic ceilings, a bank of shoulder-high windows with blinds, and Art Deco light sconces mounted on pale, salmony beige walls — an authentic 50’s look.

Anh Hong’s famous seven-course beef menu was invented by the matriarch of the family in 1954 at a restaurant in Phu-Nhuan, a suburb of Saigon. (Beef entered the Vietnamese diet during the French occupation, between 1883 and 1954.) After the Communists shut it down, the matriarch’s 10 boys emigrated to the United States, eventually opening seven branches of Anh Hong in California and Las Vegas. Their seven-course beef meal ($17.95) is so popular, it has became a part of Vietnamese culinary culture — just like prime rib, the baked potato and the spinning salad bowl did in America.

It begins with beef salad, a slaw of shredded pickled daikon, carrots and fresh mint with bits of chewy, oddly white, meat. Next, diners quickly dip thin, round slices of beef and white onion into a little fondue pot of boiling rice vinegar (the beef changes color in a flash) and place them on a lettuce leaf piled with fresh herbs — mint, cilantro, rau ram, shiso. This is rolled up and dipped into a sauce of fermented shrimp paste mixed with chile.

Now comes my favorite part of the meal: a big platter of steamed Vietnamese pate and grilled sausages. The scrumptious hot pate, full of onions and mushroomy black tree ear, is juicy and savory. You break off pieces and eat them on crisp shrimp chips.

La lot leaf-wrapped beef sausage is voluptuously buttery, wonderful wrapped in lettuce and herbs and dipped into the classic Vietnamese sauce of lime, rice vinegar, sugar, fish sauce and chiles. I could eat an a la carte order ($10.50) by myself. But, the grilled beef sausages, less fatty, a little sweeter, are tasty too. A third sausage isn’t really a sausage, rather thin slices of chewy beef rolled around pickled onions and grilled.

Dinner concludes with a bowl of excellent beef-rice soup, a congee with a deep, beefy flavor yet clean and refreshing, lively with threads of ginger and hot white pepper. It’s a perfect ending to a bounteous, highly digestible meal.

A la carte, don’t miss char-broiled shrimp balls on sugar cane stalks ($13.50), spongy shrimp pate, which you tuck into hot water-softened rice paper wrappers, along with dewy herbs and delicate steamed rice noodle pancakes topped with peanuts and scallions. Anh Hong’s crispy spring rolls, cha gio ($9.50), are also fun.

I have to hand it to Elvie Lam for being so persistent. She gave us, dear readers, a great tip. Now I’m wondering, what she will come up with next.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Anh Hong

Location: 808 Geary St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 885-5180 or www.anhhong.com

Hours: Every day from 3 to 9:30 p.m.

Price range: From $3.25 a la carte to $17.95 for seven-course beef menu

Recommended dishes: Shrimp balls on sugar cane, cha gio (Vietnamese egg rolls) la lot beef rolls, steamed beef pate, beef rice soup

Credit cards: Visa and Master Card

Reservations: Accepted

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