So what is pho? The beef- or chicken-based soup is identified by a clear broth and spaghetti-shaped rice noodles called bánh pho. 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.
For newbies, the hardest part about all this isn't the actual eating of the pho but getting past the pronunciation. It's "fuh" — not "foe." Here's a very brief video to help you out.
Now that that's out of the way, the next question might be: What's with these numbered names on the menus? Turns out it's all about luck; in many Asian cultures, numbers (like 8) are often associated with wealth and prosperity, while others are used to mark an important date in Vietnamese history or perhaps the owners' personal life. For example, Pho 67 could stand for 1967, the year the owner fled Vietnam during the war. The Pho 75s of the world are probably honoring 1975, the year Saigon fell.
What makes a bowl of pho un-pho-gettable? Is it the broth, the meat, or the noodles? For us, the best bowls of pho have a few simple characteristics: slippery, firm noodles; a steaming, fragrant, rich beef broth; sheets of fine-sliced meat; and a mountain of add-it-yourself cilantro, mint, and bean sprouts served on the side that allows you to customize each bowl to your liking.
Fancy yourself a pho lover? Here are seven spots to get your pho fix on in South Florida.
7. Pho Hoa Noodle Soup
5435 N. State Road 7, Tamarac. Call 954-739-9888, or visit phohoa.com.
Founded nearly three decades ago, this Vietnamese restaurant chain with locations in Tamarac and Orlando serves up some pretty solid Asian fare. They are best known for their giant, steaming bowls of pho — over 15 types to choose from. Adventurous eaters might want to try the Pho Chin, Nam, Gau, Gan, Ve Don, pho made with brisket, flank, and both fatty and crunchy pieces of tendon. Rice noodle dishes feature big on the menu here, as well as simple appetizers and light salads like a cold chicken salad with vermicelli rice noodles. Slathered with tangy nuoc cham and plenty of ridiculously hot, lemongrass-infused sambal chili sauce, that stuff is dynamite. Pair it with Pho Hoa's ice-cold boba smoothies — made with fruit, tea, or tapioca — for an authentic meal.
6. What the Pho
2033 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors. Call 754-779-7769.
Sooner or later it was bound to happen: a pho joint with an obvious pun for a name. Luckily, we're willing to overlook two-month-old What The Pho's transgression thanks to a menu of authentic, homemade Vietnamese fare prepared by chef-owner Huey Nguyen. Of course, that also means a solid bowl of pho. The soup is served in a giant white ceramic bowl, a rich broth that's at once simple but strong, rife with tender slabs of meat, chopped green onion, herbs, and spices. It arrives beside a platter of sauces, a homemade chili one as well as the usual hoisin and sriracha. There are several types to choose from, and each are phenomenal, made fresh daily by the staff according to Nguyen's family recipe.
5. Pho & Hot Pot
826 Park Ave., Lake Park. Call 561-842-3443, or visit phoandhotpot.com.
It's always an interesting mission to search out good Vietnamese fare — especially a good bowl of pho — in South Florida. This Lake Park restaurant has it down, though. Everything on the menu is traditional preparation, from the goi cuon summer rolls and bank xeo (Vietnamese pancakes) to the chicken wings and curry "puffs." Most menu items are priced under $15 and offer a variety of noodle soups and rice dishes. But the pho is where it's at. Pho & Hot Pot offers a total of eight styles. That includes the dac biet, a meat-lover's dream, with steak, tripe, brisket, tendon, and beef meatballs. The pho ga offers chicken and rice noodles, and the pho chay is vegetarian with tofu and a vegetable-based broth. See? Something for everyone, and priced just right.
4. Pho 16
2905 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach. Call 561-471-0901.
Palm Beach County residents already know there aren't many Vietnamese eateries north of the Broward County line. Luckily, three-year-old Pho 16 is helping the area's more adventurous diners get their pho fix. You can get your pho to dine-in or on the go at this tiny eatery located off Military Train in north West Palm Beach. As the name suggests, the restaurant spotlights its pho, a hearty take rife with rice noodles, meat, and herbs. Steamy options include steak, shrimp, brisket, meatball, chicken, and more.
3. Pho VI
1933 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Call 954-367-7786.
Before Pho VI opened in downtown Hollywood three years ago, Broward County residents in search of a good bowl of pho were forced to travel west to places like Pho 79 in Davie, Saigon City in Lauderdale Lakes, Pho Hoa Noodle Soup in Tamarac, or Saigon Cuisine in Margate. But not any longer: Pho VI produces a flawless pho rendition, 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.
2. Pho 79
6451 Stirling Road, Davie. Call 954-797-9700.
Located in an informal strip-mall in Davie, Pho 79 serves a variety of Vietnamese specialties. Sure, there is no ambiance to speak of, the menu is small, and the location is almost hidden in the corner of the shopping plaza — but the food is truly exceptional. They only serve half a dozen dishes or so, but one of those dishes is pho, available in more than half-a-dozen varieties and three different sizes. It's one of the main reasons much of the clientele is made up of loyal (and mostly Vietnamese) patrons who frequent the restaurant weekly. At the table, make each bowl your own. Diners can add bean sprouts, slices of hot pepper, lime, herbs, and bean sprouts, enough so that the resulting bowl ends up with a variety of texture and flavor from piquant pepper to crunchy vegetables.
1. Basilic Vietnamese Grill
218 Commercial Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-771-5798, or visit basilicvietnamesegrill.net.
Basilic, the 6-year-old Vietnamese restaurant on Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, is a tiny beachside bistro best-known around these parts for serving a mean bowl of pho. The soup here is rich and fragrant with anise and ginger and loaded with strips of thin-sliced steak that cooks from almost raw to a blushing medium rare as it sits inside the steaming bowl. Served on the side are the traditional salvo of accoutrements: a frock of peppery basil, some crisp bean sprouts, slivers of jalapeño, a wedge of lime, and a dish filled with hoisin and sriracha. The broth is heady and fairly beefy, with grassy notes of scallion and onion mixing with the starch of the rice noodles. The pho of choice is a combination bowl called pho dac biet, which includes gelatinous, porky meatballs and slices of brisket with bits of unctuous fat attached. Aside from chicken, here you can also find the soup made with oxtail. A few years ago, a second outpost opened in Boca Raton (200 S. Federal Highway, Boca Raton), giving Palm Beach County residents the opportunity to sip on this meal made for chilly days — even here in steamy, sunny South Florida.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.