When I lived in the Back Bay, my suburban friends would coo, "Oooh, you must love the great restaurants!" I'd flush and mumble about how I'd found a few worthy places, omitting how difficult that was. In truth, there's lots of cheap fuel for drunken students, plenty of posh expense-account restaurants, and scads of overpriced Newbury Street places that would swiftly fail without tourists filling their great patios. But for tasty, healthy, affordable meals, Back Bay residents have to pick their spots carefully. So I was tickled to discover that Pho Basil, a new Vietnamese/Thai place near the Berklee School of Music, delivers extraordinary value and fresh flavors for the neighborhood.
Unlike nearby fluorescent-lit dumps, it's a pretty 50-seat place, with vanilla, caramel, and turquoise walls, plus mahogany-laminate furniture. Classic starters like goi cuon ($3.95), filled with chicken, tofu, or shrimp and pork, could use more fresh basil or mint inside, but are otherwise fine. Roti 'n curry dip ($5.95), a scallion pancake with a dipping sauce of Thai green curry loaded with basil leaves, seems like an odd bit of Chinese/Thai fusion, but the pancake is deliciously crisp and not too greasy, and I believe even styrofoam peanuts could be made palatable with that wonderful gravy. A Thai entreé of drunken noodle with a choice of chicken, crispy chicken, pork, beef, seafood (shrimp, scallop, and squid), or tofu ($7.95–$9.95) is a skillful stir-fry of flat, long rice noodles, barely crisp vegetables, generously laid-on protein, and just the right amount of dried-chili fire.
But any place with "pho" in the name must be judged on its namesake, and Pho Basil doesn't disappoint. There's real depth of roasted-bone-stock flavor in the broth of the pho dac biet ($6.95): al dente rice noodles, big slices of honeycombed tripe, lean rib eye, and gamey brisket, a few tendrils of richly chewy tendon, and perfect accompaniments (no blackly wilting basil here). By itself, that medium-size bowl makes a hearty meal to instill warmth and contentment, but if you're a real trencherman, you can order the pho xe lua ($8.95), which aptly translates as "train-sized." The weekday four-course prix fixe lunch special ($8.95) offers a few choices each of an appetizer, soup, salad, and entrûe — a deal. Bottled beers ($4.25), cheap sake ($5), and modest wines (glasses $5–$7, no bottle more than $28) are another pleasant surprise, though just-made sparkling limeade ($2.50) also refreshes beautifully. Service is attentive and sweet, delivering a rare two-fer of quality Vietnamese and Thai from one kitchen. Frugal locals accustomed to settling for mediocre burritos, awful American-Chinese, and execrable pizza will doubtless rejoice.
Pho Basil, located at 177A Mass Ave, in Boston, is open Sunday to Thursday, from 11:30 am to 10 pm; and Friday and Saturday, from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Call 617.262.5377.