The Soups of Vietnam
For those who have had it at its best, pho is more than mere food. It is a drug, and a very addictive one. No, no -- don't get all excited. The ingredients do not include any of the excellent if illegal substances carried into the USA with returning soldiers during the Vietnam War era. Pho is simply Vietnamese beef noodle soup.
But not so simple. Though its 100-year-old origins are debated, there's probably a good reason why pho is pronounced like the French feu. It's likely that pho was a cross-cultural product from Vietnam's days of colonial occupation, a spectacularly successful fusion of Vietnamese peasants' sustaining staple of noodles in broth with France's sophisticated, more lavishly beefy pot au feu. When it is made well, the stock's vegetables are char-grilled for extra flavor and long-simmered with the most marrow-rich bones and gelatinous meat, plus lightly toasted star anise, black cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and as many as twenty other spices. The meat products and chewy rice noodles are cooked to precision and added later. Then there are the optional garnishes of cilantro or culantro, onions, hung que (Asian basil), bean sprouts, chilies, and limes. Pho is so gratifying it is hard to believe it's legal.
It's also harder to find in Miami than recreational drugs, even in Vietnamese eateries, owing to the complicated cooking process (the best pho takes up to 24 hours to make). So the opening, earlier this year, of Viet SoBe, an informal and inexpensive self-billed "Healthy Vietnamese & Sushi Restaurant," seemed cause for celebration. But don't break out the bubbly yet. There's pho, five varieties in fact. But it's nothing to write home about.
Pho tai ($7.95), noodle soup with thin slices of eye-of-round steak, came with the rice noodles properly chewy, even though the broth had been added to the bowl in the kitchen rather than poured tableside. The noodles were mushy by the end, but this happens when one slurps too slowly. Overdone meat was less forgivable. It's the broth's heat that cooks the beef, so to be done to individual diners' preferences, raw slices ideally are placed atop the noodle pile. Pushed underneath in the kitchen, they arrived already gray.
Worse, broth was boringly bland, with no beefy boldness whatsoever. Loading the bowl from the side plate of cilantro, basil, and sprouts provided pleasant crunch and intensified flavor slightly, but not enough.
Though the broth in Pho dac biet ($8.95) should theoretically be identical, it's more succulent at some eateries because of this "special" pho's additional meat. Viet SoBe's menu mentioned the usual combo: well-done brisket, tendon, and meatballs. But the soup came with only the same round, even more overcooked, plus some underspiced meatballs -- no brisket, no tendon, no added savor. The plate of side condiments was also unaccountably absent, so no help from that quarter.
Saigon spring rolls (two fried-rice paper packets filled with ground pork, carrots, a few shreds of black mushroom, and lots of rice vermicelli) were tastier, though missing the onion advertised. And they were small. Much bigger and better for the same $4.95 were shrimp garden rolls, two cold rice-parchment-wrapped salad rolls with jumbo shrimp, lettuce, vermicelli, aromatic leaves (basil, mint, and cilantro), and two dipping sauces: a nicely spicy peanut and an unadvertised but welcome sweet/sour nuoc mam. Shrimp were beautifully cooked to just barely done, boding well for Viet SoBe's sushi. For pho fanatics, however, the drive up to Little Saigon on 167th Street is worth the effort.
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