Nothing ruins a meal like qualifying its authenticity. You know the drill: You slurp down a big bowl of aromatic pho, you really enjoy it, and then your brain kicks into gear. It didn't take you to the streets of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. You have become the Regina George of food, someone who blights a lover by saying things like, "Yes, I love you, but..."
What makes one food more legitimate than another? Is it the cook's nationality, the waiter's birthplace, or the language printed on the menu?
In reality, none of those things really matters. The only factor that counts is taste.
So I recently set out to find Miami's best pho -- a noodle soup great because of its flavor and not its immigration status. A good pho hinges on the broth, a clear liquid produced by beef bones, fish sauce, and spices such as cinnamon and star anise. Served with rice noodles, the stock pairs with various cuts of beef and accompaniments such as Thai basil, chilies, and lime. My quest began in Miami Lakes and finished at a 30-year-old restaurant in Little Havana. Throughout this traffic- battered journey, there was only one rule:
No authenticity talk allowed.
Pho at Green Papaya
4. Green Papaya
At Green Papaya in Miami Lakes, emerald curtains and bamboo sticks cover the dining room's windows, shielding patrons from the outside world, which -- in this case -- is a seedy strip-mall parking lot. Pho goes by two names here: special beef soup or the less poetic number 8. It's a fine soup, built upon a tawny, rosy broth that's garnished with generous sprigs of cilantro. Thin rice noodles tangle around floating bits of red onion, scallions, and beef. Bean sprouts, lime, and mint ride alongside.
There are a few downers to this bowl, though. The mint arrives wilted. The meat boasts the slightly sour flavor of not-so-great beef. It's a nice meal for $8.95. But Green Papaya's best soup is not pho; it's bun bo Hue. This spicy, reddish soup, scented boldly with lemongrass and pork, employs thin, round noodles instead of the flat variety used in pho. Globs of orange oil glide across its fiery surface.
The restaurant's pho is good; the bun bo Hue ($8.95) rushes at you with flavor.
Pho at Oak Tavern
3. Oak Tavern
Purists would never add sriracha and hoisin sauce to pho -- a balanced broth shouldn't need such additions. But at Oak Tavern, the Design District restaurant owned by David Bracha and helmed by Curtis Rhodes, the pho needs a bit of both.
Rhodes offers pho with papaya salad for $18 as a Thursday-night special. To make his broth, he roasts beef bones and white onions until their surfaces are charred and burnt. He shoves the mixture into a stock pot, throws in short ribs, and simmers it all for five hours.
The result is a chestnut-tinged broth, which he crowns with cilantro, scallions, and red and green chilies. The short ribs, tender and delicious, fall apart with the poke of a chopstick. The dish doesn't come with any of the usual accompaniments; it arrives only with the two sauces sloshed in tiny tin cups. "I try to keep it straightforward for our clientele," Rhodes says.
Oak Tavern's pho tastes best after a heavy hit of sriracha and hoisin. The restaurant's greatest strength is its succulent beef, but its broth lacks salt.
Pho at Pho Thang
2. Pho Thang
You can spot the regulars at this Vietnamese restaurant, which is located in a musty Perrine strip mall. In the bare dining room, while Carrie Underwood croons "Two Black Cadillacs" from a stereo, seasoned customers request their beef raw and served on the side. When the soup ($9.95) arrives, they plunge the thin strips of steak into the broth. The hot liquid cooks the meat in seconds. Want to skip this extra step? You might end up with an impenetrable mass of beef anchored tightly to the center of your bowl.
Pho Thang's soups have amassed quite a following, particularly among those who favor pho with tripe, tendon, and meatballs. But even shy eaters will enjoy this restaurant. Whether you get flank or tripe, Pho Thang's beige broth tastes subtle and slightly sweet. Each of the soup's garnishes, including bean sprouts and basil, are perky and fresh.
This may not be a lovely place, but it certainly serves a lovely pho.
Pho at Hy Vong
1. Hy Vong
Walking along Little Havana's Calle Ocho, you might come across a check-in sheet, folding chairs, and hungry folks hanging out by the curb. They're all waiting patiently for a table at Hy Vong -- a teeny Vietnamese restaurant that's been open since 1980. It lacks signage, but the crowds signify where to find it.
Service moves slowly, and meals can take as long as two hours. But that's not the only criticism muttered about this place. Some customers also lash out about the pho.
Hy Vong doesn't serve its soup ($10) with a side of sprouts, chilies, and herbs. All of its toppings -- a heaping pile of fried shallots, cilantro, basil, onion, and bean sprouts -- arrive inside the bowl. Want chopsticks? You have to ask for them. Otherwise, you'll get a spoon and fork.
Indeed, things work a bit differently here. But Hy Vong makes up for its idiosyncrasies with its broth. The delicious liquid is nearly translucent -- yellow-tinged and scented with star anise. Beneath the surface, short ribs are rich and tender. Medium-size noodles coil around hunks of those crisp, golden shallots. This is the best pho in Miami because it proffers a variety of textures and flavors -- a perfect triumvirate of earthy, salty, and sweet.
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Still, people obsess over its authenticity -- constantly drawing comparisons among other cities, other cooks, and other bowls. So what's up with all the debate? Ask Hy Vong owner Kathy Manning, who worked with a church group in Vietnam during the '70s and has visited regularly ever since: "Vietnam is just like here," she says, chuckling as if she's been asked this question many times before. "Good cooking always has the element of individuality."
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.