Vietnamese food is an amazing blend of Asian and French cuisine, due to the colonization of Indo-China by the French. That blend of cultures is most evident in the classic báhn mi, a sandwich featuring Asian ingredients, such as pickled daikon with paté (that’s the classic version, others have been adapted to American tastes) on a crisp baguette. It’s a classic staple in Vietnam.
Another, more Asian influenced dish is pho. Pronounced “fuh,” it is the dish by which you judge a Vietnamese restaurant. Pho consists of a broth flavored with lemongrass and spices served over noodles. It can contain a variety of protein sources from the familiar (chicken, seafood) to unusual (ox-tail, tripe, beef tendon).
Most opt for the classic Americanized version, served with thin slices of raw beef, which cooks in, and flavors, the soup. Pho is traditionally served with a platter of assorted vegetables; usually thinly sliced carrots, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage or lettuce (and jalpeños for those who want a bit of heat) allowing each diner to alter the soup to their taste.
Though there are a few places serving báhn mi in South Florida, it is much easier to find Vietnamese restaurants with pho on the menu. With the opening of What the Pho? in Wilton Manors, I decided to see how it stacks up against other offerings in the area.
What The Pho?
2033 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors
The bad pun in the title couldn’t be more appropriate, for that was my reaction after dining there. This place is a disappointment. Since it’s only been open a couple of months, I might be willing to shrug off the inept, if friendly, service to the usual shake-down necessary with a new place, however, What the Pho? owner Huey Nguyen also owns the Miss Saigon Bistro mini-chain in the Miami area.
The service staff “auctions” off each dish they bring to the table; as in “Who ordered the…?” and it took 20 minutes for a glass of wine to be served. That is inexcusable, especially when your group of three is the only one of two occupied tables in the restaurant.
The food is good, I’ll give Nguyen that, but it is over-priced. Let’s start with the pho. There’s only one sized serving and the prices run from $12-$16. That’s a good 20 percent higher than many other places in the area (see restaurants listed below).
If What the Pho? was an upscale place, that price hike might be justified, but it’s a bare table and paper napkin kind of place. The plate of fresh veggies served along-side the dish is skimpy; for the two of us there were about 12 toothpick-sized slivers of carrot, a handful of bean sprouts and two leaves of romaine. Jalapeños were missing altogether. The mixed seafood pho was flavorful and featured an adequate, though not abundant, amount of fish and shrimp, however the beef pho broth was overly acidic (too much lemongrass, I assume) and featured four miniscule slices of beef.
Another Vietnamese classic is banh xeo, often referred to as a crepe or pancake, it is a paper-thin omelet stuffed with fresh veggies and herbs. It was perfectly prepared, but again, priced about 20 percent more than it should have. I do give the place kudos for offering a number of vegetarian options (including pho), sorely lacking in most Vietnamese restaurants in the area. Caramel tofu was rich and filled with flavor and fairly priced at $16, but the seitan version is an outrageous $24, seitan costs less than $1 pound.
Further evidence of what can only be described as price gouging; What the Pho? charges for a basket of shrimp chips. Most Vietnamese restaurants in the area serve them up complimentary, as Mexican restaurants offer tortilla chips. The chips, which cost about 25 cents a basket to prepare, weren’t even fresh.
While What the Pho? is convenient, you’d be better off opting for one of the following places:
Basilic Vietnamese Grill
218 Commercial, Lauderdale by the Sea, FL
Free shrimp chips, the pho features flavorful broth, and is priced from $10.50-$16, but there is a limited selection and no veggie version. They also offer a great banh xeo and, at happy hour, most dishes are BOGO.
4461 N State Rd. 7, Lauderdale Lakes
The pho comes in 12 varieties, averaging $9, including a vegetarian version. Shrimp chips are free. As an added treat, they offer the smoothies and bubble teas popular throughout Vietnam.
6451 Stirling Rd., Davie
Although the air-conditioning is less than adequate, the food is spectacular (as is evidenced by the large number of Vietnamese people dining there). There are 11 varieties of pho in three sizes priced from $8-$10, but no vegetarian options.