By: Jason Perlow
Vietnam. It makes you think of hot and humid jungles, of wide-open verdant pastoral fields of rice paddies. It’s a mystical and beautiful place, with a very long history. One that is associated with powerful memories for many Americans who were sent there to serve their nation in the 1960’s and early 1970s, and for families that fled the country seeking a better life for themselves, to be free of Communist oppression and the travesty of war.
It is a far-away land, like Japan and Korea, that will forever be part of our American collective consciousness. By virtue of our involvement, and for many that returned from those places, also our appetites.
The cuisine of Vietnam is different from neighboring Thailand, which residents of South Florida may be more familiar with. While the two emphasize the use of noodles — in particular rice noodles — and they share the use of certain ingredients common to southeast Asia, Vietnamese food has a very distinctive and complex flavor that was influenced by many years of French colonialism.
It is unique and addictive, with its hot, sour, salty and sweet characteristics. And those that seek it will go quite a long way for it.
Vietnamese food is one of my favorite Asian cuisines, especially during the cold and flu season when I might be under the weather. The emphasis on hot clear soup and noodles mixed with piquant spicing, raw herbs and spicy condiments that can you slurp with abandon will cure just about anything that ails you.
Pho 79, which is the sixth in a chain opened in South Florida by dapper restaurateur Jackie Tranh, is Coral Springs’ first Vietnamese restaurant to plant itself with firm roots.
Tranh, along his close family and friends that run his restaurants hails from the central Vietnamese city of Hu? (pronounced “hway”), the ancient royal capital that is known for its heavy use of red chiles and a signature noodle soup that absolutely must be experienced. More about this in a bit.
There are certainly other (excellent) Vietnamese restaurants in West Broward, most notably Atlantic Pho and Noodle House, in nearby Margate and Lauderdale Lakes. They also have broader menus and feature such items as cold appetizer salads, wok stir-fries, fried rice, fried noodles, and the ever-popular bánh mì sandwich, made with French Vietnamese bread, pickled vegetables, charcuterie, and grilled meats.
Pho 79 doesn’t have those. Instead, it has chosen to almost exclusively focus on noodle soups, rice noodle salads, and grilled meat with rice plates, because that’s what they do the best.
For the novice, Pho (which is pronounced closer to “Fuh”) is a rice noodle soup that is based on a clear broth made from a beef bone stock that is simmered for as much as twelve hours. Spices such as star anise seed, black cardamom, cloves, fennel, coriander, black peppercorns, and cinnamon are added to give it its distinctive flavor and aroma.
There’s nothing else in Asian cuisine that tastes quite like it. The Vietnamese love it so much that they will eat it any time of the day, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
When the soup is consumed at the table, raw fresh herbs such as purple basil, cilantro, sawtooth (culantro), sliced chile peppers, and bean sprouts are added to personal taste. Those, along with fresh lime juice and any number of spicy and pungent condiments such as hoisin sauce, different chile pastes and fish sauce (which is the universal and signature umami ingredient in the cuisine) make up the complex flavor profile of the dish.
There are also vegetable, poultry-based, and seafood-based pho broths, with similar spice profiles. Raw thinly sliced meat, such as beef eye round, is often added at the table to cook in the broth last-minute.
Pho 79 has a long list of noodle soups to choose from featuring different proteins including various cuts of beef, meatballs, as well as chicken and seafood, and even a vegetarian option. They are all excellent, but one, in particular, stands out above all of them: Bún bò Hu?– the soup of Mr. Tranh’s hometown.
Bún bò Hu? starts out like Pho, with a beef/pork bone broth, but they add lemongrass, palm sugar, and fermented shrimp paste to it during the cooking process, and at the end, they also add hot chili oil. It comes out cloudy, murky and red, unlike pho, which is clear. That’s before you add anything else to it at the table.
It is by far the spiciest soup in Vietnamese cuisine and one of the favorite dishes of the late Anthony Bourdain, who had a lifetime love affair with that country. It’s also sour and sweet, and in addition to slices of beef brisket and beef flank, it has all kinds of stuff floating in it, including gelatinous cubes of pig blood and a pig trotter.
In addition to the usual pho herbs, it also is served with spiralized banana blossoms, which have kind of a chewy and starchy texture.
I would consider this an “advanced” noodle soup, but if you’re into spicy and the exotic, this is the one to shoot for. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better example than this one, even in the northeast or California where Vietnamese food is much more common.
If you’re not into soup the restaurant also prides itself on its rice noodle salads and rice plates, which are served with different marinated grilled proteins, such as pork chops, beef short ribs, and chicken.
We recommend #51, the Special Rice Platter, which comes with all of the above, including miniature pork egg rolls, as well as a sunny side up egg which you can mix into the rice, along with a sweet, sour and salty dressing, referred to as N??c m?m pha, which is made with the pungent and salty fish sauce condiment.
All the main proteins, such as beef eye round, BBQ pork and lemongrass grilled shrimp, can be ordered on the side if you want to meat things up a bit more.
The aforementioned crispy fried egg rolls, as well as the refreshing summer rolls/fresh spring rolls — made with shrimp, pork, and basil in a rice noodle wrapper — served with a peanut dipping sauce — are excellent standards bearers.
Fried Shrimp, which are wrapped in crispy spring roll wrappers and come also with the sweet, sour and salty dipping sauce, is also a must-order.
We also really liked the grilled tofu, which is vegan in its preparation and served in a sweet and tangy lemongrass sauce.
If you’ve got any room left, the restaurant also has Boba Teas as well as Vietnamese Iced Coffee — which is served in its own French-style pour-over brewing container over a glass of ice with sweetened condensed milk.
It’s so sweet and strong that, dare I say it here in South Florida — that it will give Cuban coffee a run for its money.
6268 W Sample Road
Coral Springs, FL 33067
Monday-Friday 10:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Sunday 10:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Jason Perlow is a long-time foodie who spent 20 years in the New York City and New Jersey metro areas reviewing restaurants for The New York Times and his personal food blog, Off The Broiler, which he started in 2006 and ran for ten years. He is also the founder of eGullet, a popular food discussion site and not-for-profit organization that was formed in 2001, which was featured on Tony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” cable television program.
As a technologist by profession, he writes the Tech Broiler blog for CBS’s ZDNet web site. He has been a Coral Springs resident since moving to South Florida in 2012.