Miami's Best Pho

Phee-phi-pho-phum, we smell the best bowl of pho around.
Phee-phi-pho-phum, we smell the best bowl of pho around.

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
Pho at Green Papaya
Terrence McCoy

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
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.

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