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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Vietnamese the right way

Pho! Phabulous pho! Phinally!

Okay, apologies for being cute, but true phans of pho (pronounced like the French feu) will understand. Mediocre versions of this addictive Vietnamese beef-noodle concoction are so much the rule here in the Americas that when you come upon a worthy pho it seems to call for breaking all the rules, even those of spelling and grammar. Pho as it should be is so good it makes even cynical food critics silly. When the broth is clear essence of rich beef; when the paper-thin slices of raw meat are properly treated to cook to tenderness in the hot liquid; when the rice noodles are chewy; when the do-it-yourself, add-in vegetables and herbs are varied enough to magically transform the dish into something new and interesting with every bite -- when that happens, pho is not just soup. It's a party in a bowl.

Sadly, though, what most of Miami's Vietnamese eateries serve up is anemic broth, tough (and often precooked) meat, noodles boiled to mushiness, and a few sprouts as add-ins if you're lucky. Pho? Fie, I say.

But Green Papaya gets it right. This new Vietnamese restaurant is small, as is the selection of dishes; aside from the pho there are just five other soups, a few appetizers, three noodle bowls, and eight rice-based items with varied toppings. But prices are also modest, with the priciest dish only $7.95 and a couple of items like cha gio (spring rolls) and goi cuon (summer rolls) under four dollars.

The rolls were both good, especially the two healthy-size, healthwise summer versions: shredded raw veggies, thin noodles, and Thai basil enclosed in rice paper, with several tender, large shrimp and some protruding chive stalks added before the final roll, so the shellfish and greenery showed through the translucent wraps. Accompanied by a chili/garlic-spiked nuoc cham dipping sauce, they tasted as good as they looked.

In addition to being available à la carte, the vegetarian spring rolls came with what our server said was one of Green Papaya's most popular dishes, the "Saigon Special," a combination plate that also included skewered strips of juicy grilled pork (or chicken) and jumbo shrimp; a big heap of rice vermicelli, which looked like linguini but was appealingly toothier; and fish-sauce dressing. Rice noodles additionally figured in banh uot cha lua, described as a "rice crêpe and pork roll." The crêpe, similar in chewy texture to the special's vermicelli but cut into wide, irregular strips, was topped with peanut-sprinkled slices of mild Asian pork paté.

A starter of papaya beef jerky salad was just as wonderful -- crunchy green papaya strips, jerky (not tough stuff from a package but sweet, cured, dried beef), and crushed peanuts with two sauces: nuoc cham and a tangier sweet/sour. Also terrific were Mekong River shrimp, ten perfectly sautéed jumbos on rice. This plate came with shredded cabbage/carrot and mesclun salads, plus a cup of poultry broth more subtle than the pho's but nevertheless flavorful.

In fact everything is so good it would be easy to overlook the pho, but it would be a mistake to miss Green Papaya's full-flavored, scallion-dotted beef broth and festively generous array of adds: sprouts, onion slices, minty Thai basil, cilantro and culantro, plus tender slices of both raw and long-cooked beef. An equally fun way to finish is "Coffee Boba," assertive iced Vietnamese coffee (like a Starbucks latte on steroids) dotted with marble-size tapioca "bubbles" that you slurp through a drinking straw as wide as your thumb.

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