In the past few years, Vietnamese cuisine has exploded on the contemporary food scene, thanks in large part to a filling and fun-to-eat dish called pho — beef broth and noodle soup that's considered the national dish of Vietnam. A flawless pho (commonly pronounced fuh) is achieved through the lengthy process of parboiling, rinsing, and simmering beef bones. Additions to the broth then include rock sugar, charred onions and ginger, and spices like cloves, cinnamon, and star anise. The broth is finished with rice noodles, cuts of meat, sliced onions, and scallions.
Typically, the bowl is served along with a separate platter piled high with lime wedges, giant sprigs of fresh-picked Thai basil and cilantro, bean sprouts, and chilies, like a little garden on the side. Eaters pluck apart and add as many of these mix-ins as they please, then go at it with chopsticks as well as a soup spoon. When executed perfectly, pho celebrates a balance of clean flavors: aromatic herbs, crisp vegetables, hearty protein, and a vibrant, clear broth.
In the past, Broward's pho enthusiasts had to travel west for a bowl — to Pho 79 in Davie, Saigon City in Lauderdale Lakes, Pho Hoa Noodle Soup in Tamarac, or Saigon Cuisine in Margate. When Pho Vi opened in March in the middle of pedestrian-friendly Hollywood Boulevard, the restaurant was viewed as a welcome addition.
The large plastic menus at Pho Vi cater to both newcomers and enthusiasts of Vietnamese fare and offer translations, descriptions, and numbered items for each dish. The tables are taken up by pho connoisseurs eager to sample the new spot and their guests, dragged along for a taste of Vietnam's pristine, fresh cuisine.
Half of the menu pages are dedicated to beef pho, with a separate section for chicken pho (pho ga) and the spicy bún bò Hue — an intense, spicy lemongrass beef broth packed with round rice noodles, beef, and pork. The rest of the menu features appetizers, a selection of rice and rice vermicelli dishes, and variations of the wildly popular bánh mì sandwich — baguette, aioli, pickled daikon, and carrot, with a wide variety of fillings, such as liver pâté, thick-sliced Vietnamese ham, pork, or chicken. All items at Pho Vi are reasonably priced at under $13.
The restaurant showed great promise until our American waiter took the order, revealing a tone that suggested he wasn't very familiar with the cuisine. "All right, a number-one foe and number 13," he colloquially read off of his notes. That 13 soup, he said, referring to the bún bò Hue, "is real popular among the Vietnamese crowd," he finished, peering up from the pad.
On the few occasions that we dined there, a single waiter attended to the three or four occupied tables scattered across the dining room. The space is narrow, half claimed by a disproportionate counter dividing a part of the open kitchen. The room's elements are dosed in shades of cream and brown: waxed dark-brown wooden tables, khaki chairs tinted with shiny acrylic paint, and coral and beige walls. The place felt clean but cold, almost as cozy as a doctor's office. Among cheaply framed landscape prints and floral arrangements, the only vibrant elements were the half-full bottles of scarlet Huy Fong sriracha topping each table. On one evening, the dirty dishes of a neighboring, empty table added to the bare décor for more than 30 minutes.
The mundane setting could easily be overlooked if the restaurant happened to serve a remarkable bowl of pho. The goi cuon filled us with promise — two fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with a delicate combination of shrimp, pork, herbs, and rice vermicelli. But the pho ga (chicken pho) lacked the radiating depth of aromas and flavors of a flawless pho, with several slivers of overcooked poultry. Pho tai was slightly more pleasing, with its thin slices of tender beef and richer, deeper flavor.
Both were largely outdone by the spicy bún bò Hue, though. The zesty auburn broth packed intense heat and flavor amid generous bites of hearty pork patties and beef.
On one Sunday evening, the restaurant had run out of bread for the bánh mì. On another occasion, it might as well should have. The bánh mì thit — packed with pork, pâté, and Vietnamese ham — was a mediocre rendition of the popular sandwich. Whereas delectable versions boast a balance among fresh herbs, crunchy daikon pickles, and boldly flavored meats, Pho Vi's version featured an uninteresting combination of dull, one-dimensional flavors and textures.
The rice and rice vermicelli dishes proved much more captivating, particularly the com suon nuong — thinly sliced, slightly charred pork chop, marinated in aromatic lemongrass and honey, served alongside cucumber, tomatoes, rice, and nuoc cham (a fish sauce for dipping). Bun dac biet, a mixture of grilled shrimp, chunks of pork, and sliced egg rolls atop thin rice vermicelli, proved addictive and fulfilling with its meaty balance of sweet and savory.
The sound of a rowdy blender erupted through the small dining room with each order of the avocado smoothie, a blend of fresh avocado, sugar, condensed milk, and ice. The delicious treat is almost as thick as a mousse and just as rich. Ca phe sua dua translates to iced coffee brewed through a French-press-like filter (phin) atop a coffee mug onto a thin strip of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup. Served over ice, the sweet pair of inky, dark coffee and rich, intensely sweet milk was also well-executed.
But other diners were not pleased with the same drink, nor with the pho, I observed, as a white-haired gentleman, wearing glasses, a crisp guayabera, and a good dose of cologne, took a sip of his ca phe sua dua. His granddaughter seemed more captivated by her disposable wooden chopsticks than by her bowl of pho ga.
"Dale, mamita, at least eat the noodles," the girl's exasperated mother pleaded. The mother then turned around and called for the waiter, pleading for cream for her father's drink. His face was marked with a disapproving smirk. His granddaughter then slowly pushed the bowl of chicken pho into the center of the table. She was finished, and so was he.
Pho Vi will definitely satiate a quick craving for affordable Vietnamese fare. Newcomers, though, might raise an eyebrow to the pho craze — wondering what the big deal is — and after trying it at Pho Vi, connosieurs might keep trekking out west for a better bowl.