It's become standard to judge any ethnic restaurant by the number of people from a specific ethnicity sitting at its tables.
However it was the sound of people sucking air through runny noses that assured me Pho Thang, the unassuming Vietnamese restaurant only a few miles from ZooMiami, was the real deal.
Usually, snorting sounds in Miami are reserved for hotel rooms or the bathroom of a South Beach club. Yet here, near the intersection of South Dixie Highway and Colonial Drive, spoonfuls of chili paste and terrifying squirts of tongue-scorching Sriracha chili sauce induce the endless drip.
Pho Thang offers the standard array of Vietnamese fare; spring rolls in fresh rice paper, fried rolls filled with minced pork, mushrooms and vermicelli noodles, vermicelli soups with chicken broth, various proteins cooked with either ginger or lemongrass served alongside rice and an array of tofu dishes. It's clear, however, the pho (pronounced fuh) is the main event.
Pho is a seemingly simple Vietnamese rice noodle soup that's built around beef broth. It can be garnished with nearly any type of protein and usually comes with bean sprouts, Asian basil, which has a more spicy, tangy punch that what's found in western basil, limes and green chili. Prior to finding this seemingly out of place eatery seekers of pho had to endure the pretentious, overpriced Miss Saigon, which one day for no reason at all stopped selling their delicious banh mi sandwiches, or Pho 78 in Sunrise or Pembroke Pines.
There are about 10 varieties of the much-loved soup at Pho Thang, including seafood, bone-in chicken, white meat chicken and a combination of beef bits and permutations. The best move it to go for the "special beef," ($9.95) which for a dollar more than the other options gives you slices of rare beef, cooked flank meat, braised gelatinous tendon and squiggly bits of tripe floating in a bath-tub sized bowl.
At your discretion is how to use the accompanying pile of bean sprouts, basil and lime, as well as the fish sauce, hoisin sauce, Sriracha sauce and soy. The broth is flavorful enough to stand on its own, but I prefer it with shots of soy and hoisin, and plenty of Sriracha.
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While you slurp, don't forget to read the life story of owner Huong Doan, conveniently printed on the back of the menu. Doan came to America in 1975 when he was 16, escaping during the invasion of South Vietnam. He and wife Chan Nguyen, who owns and runs a nail salon in Palmetto Bay, moved to Miami from in 2002 and opened Viet Family Restaurant, which later shuttered so the pair could open Pho Thang.
i>For more, follow Zach on Twitter @ZachIsWeird.