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An Asian-American’s guide to Asian food in Miami, part 2

Two years ago, Ernie Hsiung wrote an article about Asian food in Miami for The New Tropic. People went nuts for it.

So when a PR person invited Ernie and a guest to a Chinese banquet-style, fine-dining experience, Ernie called me. Because if there’s one thing that California-Asian transplants love, it’s finding other California-Asian transplants to judge the hell out of food together. We confirmed. An Asian-American’s guide to Asian food in Miami, part 2, was on.

Da Tang Unique

I prepped for this event like Simone Biles before the Rio Olympics floor. Read up on the chef. Memorized their culinary ethos. Poured over menu items like the secret to longevity was in them. When the big day arrived, I skipped breakfast, did some half-hearted crunches, and rolled up to Da Tang with the swagger of a low-rent Kanye.

Alas, my Chinese rock star dreams were cruelly dashed. Instead of a Lazy Susan crammed with banquet food, we found a sign on the door that said, “Da Tang Unique is closed for business.” A phone call to the number listed confirmed that, yes, in a matter of days, the joint had suddenly gone belly up like my unlucky third-grade goldfish. 他妈的!

Why didn’t we get a courtesy phone call from the PR folks? Were they kidnapped? Was this the result of some unknown Trump executive order, and if so, were the feds surveilling us? We’ll never know. Ernie and I gave each other the universal look for, “F*&k it, it’s Miami,” shrugged, and walked to Brickell City Center for lunch.

Beverly and Ernie after learning that the fancy Chinese restaurant they were invited to a couple of days before closed unexpectedly.

PubBelly Sushi

Brickell City Center (unironic tagline: “Style has no labels”) is actually Brickell City Centre; the Anglophile spelling is a not-so-subtle cue to expect a highly bougie-fied mall experience. In fact, it’s less of a mall than a soft focus K-pop video, starring Ernie and myself as the only two Asians.

Pubbelly Sushi is nestled among upscale French lingerie and designer shoe stores. Like its counterpart on Purdy Avenue, it has its reliable crowd pleasers. The shishito peppers are perfectly roasted with a miso glaze. The pork belly marries orange peel with tobanjan –  a genius combination if I ever saw one – with the fatty undertow of pork rounding out the citrusy sauce. Also noteworthy are the tostones con ceviche, the grilled octopus, and the Heat Roll.

Dining there isn’t cheap. To illustrate, a bowl of edamame will run you $7. Still, Pubbelly’s quality and service makes the price tag worthwhile. So skip the expensive French lingerie and treat yourself. Because unlike a scratchy Cosabella thong, quality sushi doesn’t make you suffer for gratification.

Blackbrick

If you grew up in 1980s Singapore as I did, walking into Blackbrick can feel like cognitive dissonance. Obligatory nods to hipsterdom are everywhere – framed portraits of Bruce Lee and Keith Richards in military garb, funky murals on artfully-distressed brick walls, a single cluster of exposed miner lights. When all you want is down-home cooking, the kind with no agenda, the kind that transports you back to your childhood,  all this calculated sophistication can be off-putting.

It doesn’t help that Blackbrick touts itself as serving “reinvigorated Chinese food,”  which is usually shorthand for “we’ll charge three times as much and serve you whitewashed Asian-American crap on square plates.”

Thankfully, Blackbrick is no bullshit. Behind the cleverly named cocktails and dope beats is an ambitious menu that actually delivers. Their xiao long bao bursts with flavor, as does their crispy duck neck (pro tip: ditch the fork; eat with your hands). If you’re ready to kick your Chinese game to the next level, order the chicken feet in black bean sauce, suck the bones, and try not to get skeeved that ligaments and foot pads occupy a beloved place in our culinary lexicon. Noodle aficionados will also love Blackbrick’s dan dan mian, which strikes just the right balance between heat, saltiness, and acidity.

The only notable outlier on Blackbrick’s report card is their char siu bao.  It left a cloying, sugary-sweet aftertaste, much like Ariana Grande at the VMAs. Everything else gets the coveted Asian “A.”

Pho Thang

Outside of Pho Thang. Not pictured: Jamaican grocery store, Cuban restaurant, Asian grocery store. Immigrants: we get the job done. (Courtesy of Beverly Tan Murray)

 

Let’s get something out of the way. If you’re looking for plush velvet upholstery, polite wineglass-clinking, and Vivaldi in C major, this is not the joint for you. Pho Thang is a no-frills Vietnamese restaurant tucked away in a nondescript Palmetto Bay strip mall, the kind where you can have a good meal, stock up on Jamaican patties, and cop a tight fade, all within 20 feet of each other.

It’s slightly disorienting inside – the fluorescent lights flicker like a sinister Kubrick movie; the acoustics are so bad that you can overhear conversations five tables away.

But  you’re not here for the ambience, remember? You’re here for good eats. To that end, note the premium Nước Chấm (fish sauce) at every table, not just Sriracha and hoisin sauce. This is a reassuring sign that Pho Thang knows wtf they’re doing.

For appetizers, start with their Golden Pancake, Baby Clams with Lemongrass, and Ginger Mussels. If you’re hankering for something much more basic, I recommend their Grilled Pork Rolls, Papaya Salad, and a side of Taylor Swift’s “1989” (cough).

Or, you could skip their appetizers and dig into Pho Thang’s crown jewel – their pho. Here, I should issue a PSA: garnishes, meats, and toppings are well and good, but the strength of one’s pho is judged on the flavoring and complexity of the soup. This is where Pho Thang is the undisputed hood champ. Their soup tastes deceptively simple and straightforward at first. Over time, different notes emerge – anise, bone broth, hints of fennel. You’re more apt to enjoy their pho if you slow down, so put away your iPhone, stay present, and really take it all in.

Meat lovers will enjoy their Beef with Flank Pho or Boneless Chicken Pho – both are solid picks. My friend tried their Beef, Flank, and Tripe Pho, and swore up and down that it “erased her hangover in five minutes” (statement not approved by the FDA). Vegetarians will love their vegetable and tofu pho. And if you prefer the bounty of the ocean? Seafood pho with shrimp, scallop, fishballs, and quail eggs – a combo so good, you’ll swear that Migos is throwing a pre-Grammy party in your mouth.

Their Vietnamese Coffee deserves honorable mention. It’s everything good in a cup – a thick, viscous, brew with an inch of condensed milk at the bottom, which you then pour over ice and sip slowly while contemplating your place in the universe.

Was that too heady? Can’t help myself. That’s what good pho does to me. If you want good Vietnamese food, Pho Thang is a sho’ thang. (That was objectively terrible; puns should be outlawed.)

Moshi-Moshi

According to their website, Moshi-Moshi is a  Japanese “tapas-style restaurant” with “Ikazaya-style cuisine.” It’s more complicated for me. My relationship with Moshi-Moshi mirrors the hilariously dysfunctional one I had when I was 22 and dating a male model.  As in, we’re not soul mates, but Moshi-Moshi and I still begrudgingly hook up. It’s a relationship based on convenience (eight minute walk from my house, no reservations needed). Inside, the anime movie they screen is on a perpetual loop and hasn’t been changed in years. The service is spotty (your waiter may disappear for 15, 20 minutes on end), and they may or may not still have those lingering issues.

But when you’re settling, you overlook the red flags. You focus relentlessly on the positive. Moshi-Moshi serves up a decent yellowtail ceviche, for instance. Their gesso (deep fried squid legs) is strangely addictive, washes down well with a cold Sapporo. And if you’re felled by anything less severe than tuberculosis, their vegetable udon has mysterious curative properties.

Best of all, Moshi-Moshi stays open until 5 a.m. So when you’re tired of newer, flashier joints, and just want to swoon, Scarlett O’Hara-style into the arms of an old lover, you know who to hit up. Moshi-Moshi. Because apparently, old habits die hard.

Are you hungry yet? Good. Grab your friends and head out to one of these spots. Just don’t, whatever you do, drunk-stumble into a tattoo parlor afterward to get inked with the Chinese character for “ocean.” That story never ends well. I should really start charging for all this unsolicited advice.

Main photo originally published by DeaShoot.

By Beverly Murray
Beverly Tan Murray is a Chinese-American author who has been published in The James Franco Review, AWAY Magazine, Linden Avenue, and the South China Morning Post. She is two-time VONA/Voices alumnus, and writes short stories about life in liminal spaces. Beverly has yet to find the perfect char siew bao.

  • I had high hopes for great discoveries with your article. After all, you guys told me about King Palace Chinese two years ago and that was an awesome tip. I enjoy your writing but you need to get out of the local famed chef scene and go very local. I’ve been to all these and I wouldn’t call them the best or the most authentic. I will be happy to compare notes – I shared Asian food tips on my last two posts at http://www.valeriainmiami.com/blog/ because I am super passionate about this topic. We lived lived in Asia for a few years, and finding authentic and fresh Asian food in Miami is my mission.

  • Sal Macaraig

    I used to go to Pampanguena a lot as a ki…. Great Filipino grocery + restaurant in Cutlery Bay/Perrine

    • Beverly Tan Murray

      Nice! I’ve been wanting to try out Filipino food in Miami. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Marcella Mccarthy

    Hey, love your writing! (And the content, too, obvi) 🙂

    • Beverly Tan Murray

      Thanks, Marcella! Glad you liked it 🙂