Huey Nguyen has a lot of secrets.
Specifically, the recipes at his 2-month-old Wilton Manors restaurant he appropriately named What the Pho.
"That's the general reaction I get when people ask me for my recipes," says Huey, especially for his plum sauce, spring rolls, and the green papaya salad. "But I can't give away my mother's recipes. That's not happening."
A Miami-Dade resident, Huey hails from a family of restaurateurs, including those behind the Miss Saigon Bistro establishments, with locations in Pinecrest, Coral Cables, and South Beach. One of 11 children, the newbie restaurateur says he opened What the Pho as a tribute to his 89-year-old mother, Gai Nguyen; born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City — a metropolis in southeast Vietnam — she taught Huey to cook many of her homeland's most basic dishes while working as head chef at Miss Saigon Bistro's Pinecrest location, where she continues to cook today.
But the road to the Miss Saigon kitchen was a long one for Gai. When the family first moved to the United States, Huey recalls, his parents both worked several jobs to keep the household afloat. One of his mother's first jobs was at the local Chinese restaurant, washing dishes for $10 a day. Later, when two of Huey's sisters began helping her after school, the owner gave Gai just $2 more per day — one for each girl.
"After many years in the business, my mom's skill and talent got her better jobs, and she started cooking," recalls Huey. "And when my sisters opened the first Miss Saigon in Coral Gables more than 18 years ago, she was the chef."
Today, What the Pho is chef-owner Huey's first private venture outside his siblings' establishments. Until now, he preferred to play the affable host, his outgoing demeanor earning him the title of "the show." When his sisters needed to drum up business, he'd be there to help usher in the crowds and keep the patronage happy.
"As for my own place, it was always a dream, but I wasn't planning to do this here — or now," says Huey, whose friend suggested he take a look at the vacant space at 2033 Wilton Drive, formerly occupied by Gregarious Drinkery. "But I fell in love with the city and the people. It was meant to be."
As you might suspect, many of Gai's recipes can now be found at What the Pho, everything from handmade spring rolls and peanut plum sauce to giant, steaming bowls of pho, hu
But there is one section of the What the Pho menu that features Huey's own creation, filed under lunch specials. It's called the Huey Special, a bowl-style meal he concocted years ago at Miss Saigon's Miami locations. The dish has become so popular, each restaurant now goes through hundreds of orders a day for both lunch and dinner.
It's sort of a Vietnamese twist on the ubiquitous rice bowl, here a large ceramic one filled with various herb-laced ingredients, specifically grilled shrimp and slices of white-meat chicken sautéed with garlic, green onion, chive, and fresh-ground lemongrass, then kissed with a touch of curry spice. Instead of rice, it's all piled atop a heaping portion of translucent rice noodles. If you like it spicy, it's served alongside a thick oyster sauce and vinegary nuoc cham.
There are also a few of those spring rolls added to the mix, filled with slivers of tender pork, shrimp, mushroom, chopped garlic, Thai chili, carrot, and stringy thin noodles. It's all rolled into a neat bundle and wrapped in handmade rice paper Huey and his staff prepare fresh each day. They're fashioned into tiny, two-inch cigars, then seared and fried to a delicate crisp, packed with flavor. The procedure to create them was once a bit of a headache for Huey.
"Those are my favorite part of the dish," says Huey. "It took me a long time to learn how to make them just right. Every time I did it wrong, my mother would smack me on the back of the head. I still remember the day I finally got it right."
Although it doesn't come with it, ask for a side of Gai's peanut plum sauce for dipping.
Or you might want to start your meal with a Vietnamese staple, Huey's refreshingly flavorful green papaya salad. Exuding a distinct taste thanks to a combination of carrots, mint, poached shrimp, and sliced pork tossed in Gai's herbaceous lemon garlic dressing, it's one of Huey's most requested recipes. But his loyal staff won't breathe a word, so don't bother asking.
Another creative appetizer you won't find anywhere else is also another of Huey's secrets: the beef ceviche salad. Strips of red onion mixed with rare beef tenderloin are cut into long, thin slices served in an oversized martini glass in a cilantro lemon dressing. While most raw beef can be smooth — even slippery — the meat in this ceviche hits your tongue with an almost grainy texture and a hint of a toasty flavor. It's part of Huey's prep process and lends this dish its crave-worthy factor. Don't ask, just enjoy.
Of course, you might be curious about the pho. Is it pho-nomenal? Unphogettable? Pho-sho. The pho here — all eight varieties of it — is good. When executed perfectly, pho celebrates a balance of clean flavors: aromatic herbs, crisp vegetables, hearty protein, and a sinus-clearing broth. And Huey knows his pho.
By now, anyone with a love for Asian cuisine knows what pho is, that fragrant beef-noodle soup served with slices of brisket, tendon, tripe, and rare beef laid atop slippery rice noodles submerged beneath a clear broth redolent of garlic, cinnamon, onion, and herbs. Apart from ramen, it's perhaps the most popular of the Asian noodle soups, true Vietnamese comfort food. Typically, the bowl is served along with a separate platter piled high with lime wedges, giant sprigs of fresh mint, bean sprouts, and chilies. Eaters pluck apart and add as many of these mix-ins as they please, along with a few squirts of fishy nuoc cham and chili sauce.
If you're looking to experience something new, try the bun bo hue (or spicy beef soup). Similar to pho, the dish hails from the central Vietnamese city of Hue, Vietnam's former capital. Today, Hue is known as the Imperial City and offers a number of distinct dishes, including a soup that is strong enough to make pho look weak.
Bun bo hue begins with pork and beef bones and congealed pigs blood but gets its kick from lemongrass, Vietnamese coriander, annatto, and shrimp paste. At What the Pho, that makes for a really badass broth that — like pho — is rife with slices of beef and — unlike pho — slices of pork roll. And it's the pork roll that makes this dish really special. It's house-made and spiked with lemongrass. Rather than the garnish of mint, bean sprouts, and lime wedges to flavor the broth, Huey adds a tangle of banana leaves, springy yellow-brown tendrils that arrive in a tangled pile, which uncoil and soften after a few minutes in the hot broth.
That broth is an angry-red-tinged one that catches the back of your throat after each slurp thanks to a liberal application of chili oil. If you dare, ask for it full force like the Vietnamese patrons and see if you can stand the heat.
According to Huey, the hallmark of a truly great Asian restaurant is the number of Asian customers dining there. If you go by such things, What the Pho is doing well. The most popular dishes are the most authentic, including the thit kho to, a sticky-sweet pork dish also known as caramelized pork. The meat — either pork butt or belly — is braised and simmered in a rich, sweet liquid made funky with nuoc mam cham (fish sauce) until fork-tender. It's served for both lunch and dinner at What the Pho, alongside rice and a house salad.
If you can fit dessert, the puffy Thai donuts are some of the best you'll find in Broward County, fried into long twists and served with a gooey, sweetened, condensed-milk syrup your server will pour from a glass over the plate upon arrival. But it's Huey's sister's homemade Vietnamese coffee cheesecake you'll need to ask about. It's not always on the menu, but when she delivers it fresh from the oven to What the Pho, you'll need to order a slice, searching out the ribbons of creamy-caramel coffee goo between pillowy tufts of cheesecake.
So, it's OK, Huey. Keep your secrets. We'll just have to keep coming back pho more.
What the Pho
2033 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors. Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. Monday and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 754-779-7769.
Spring rolls $7.95
Beef ceviche salad $11.95
Green papaya salad $11.95
Huey's Special $16.95
Spicy beef soup $15.95
Caramelized pork $16.95