It’s very rare that a single bite of food changes your life. If you meet your soulmate after accidentally swapping orders at the coffee shop, spend the afternoon walking in the park together as yellow leaves fall on your shoulders, make plans to meet again, and then get in a freak accident that erases your memory on your way home, forcing you to piece together the day with the help of your quirky friend, Kate Hudson, then sure - that blueberry scone counts. But realistically, the best you can hope for is a bite of food that changes your day.
Ban Toi, a neighborhood Vietnamese place in Dorchester, is not a perfect restaurant (it’s decorated with beautiful black and white photos of, uh, New York, for some reason). But you will have a few perfect bites. Come here when your boss chewed you out, your car broke down, or you spent too much time on Twitter. You’ll find a handful of dishes that are so good, that your day will instantly improve, even without a Starbucks meet-cute.
As with most Dorchester Vietnamese places, the greatness of Ban Toi starts with the pho. Pho already is a shawl collar sweater in bowl form, a dish that can save even the sh*ttiest Boston winter day. But the first bite of the chicken pho at Ban Toi doesn’t just warm you up, it builds a Martha Stewart-furnished log cabin in your mouth. It’s perfect, with tender chicken, rice noodles, and a broth that, despite being as clear as a bottle of Poland Spring, contains more flavor than everything that’s in your fridge right now combined.
As a general rule here, you’ll want to stick with the things that come in liquid form. So after you get the pho, move on to the sauteed fried pork. It’s sauteed with vegetables in a rich, buttery sauce, and comes with a piece of French bread. The baguette is the most important part of the dish, not only because it’s excellent (soft as a Super Mario cloud on the inside but legitimately crunchy on the outside) but because you’re going to want to soak up each and every drop of the sauce.
Not everything on the menu is a hit. The snails, for instance, which come on a bed of really good, garlicky corn, will not make you like snails if you don’t already. But if you order right, you won’t care, because there are enough things on the menu that you will absolutely love. They might not change your life, and in all likelihood, no bite of food is capable of doing that anyway. But they’ll make you feel a little bit better about life, even on a particularly bad day when you accidentally say “I love you” on a work call. And that’s more helpful than anything your quirky friend, Kate Hudson, could do for you.
The good news about this dish is that it includes some of the best corn you’ll find in a restaurant. The bad news is you have to use a toothpick to pick the snails out of their shells, and they’re not quite worth the effort. They lack the sweet, garlicky taste taste of the corn, as if they were cooked separately.
Grilled Melo Melo
This is a large sea snail served in its shell with peanuts and scallions. It tastes a little like lobster, which is obviously a good thing, but whether you like it will depend on how much you like chewy textures.
We’re inclined to like any salad that prominently features pork belly, and the sweet sauce on the side makes it even better. Slather it on, then scoop everything up with a rice crisp. There’s a lot going on in this dish and it works best if it all lands in your mouth at the same time.
If you like hot, noodle soups (and who doesn’t) then this one needs to be on your radar. It’s among the very best pho in Boston, thanks mostly to a clear, flavorful broth that’s so good they probably have the recipe under 24-hour guard.
Short Rib Pho
At one point while eating the short rib pho, you will fish around the bowl and come up with a completely clean bone. If you think that’s a sign of some really well made short rib, you’re right.
Pork and vegetables sauteed in an incredibly rich and flavorful sauce. If you don’t finish the sauce, you will take it home and figure out something to put it on, even if that means a few stale pretzels you have lying around your kitchen.