January 17, 2012 | 12:00pm
An outsider's opinion will tell you that the most essential building block to good Vietnamese pho is in the broth, but the insiders tasked with assembling the traditional brew of steeped herbs and bone morrow will take it a step further. They'll tell you it's like the keystone to building a bridge - if it fails to capture the palate (sour instead of zesty; greasy rather than robust) than the rest is just phooey, seeing as how "the rest" is typically submerged in a giant bowl of the stuff.
The pho broth at Tea Light Cafe, which shares a sidewalk with Harkins Cine Capri in Scottsdale, is golden. Noodle places are as trendy as the cities they're popping up in (New York City, Los Angeles), but in Phoenix, a city where trends go to shrivel, the Tea Light Cafe has survived with a credo of keeping it simple, fresh, and quality - with every single menu item priced under $10.
Pork "Bun" topped with chopped peanuts and served with two crispy egg rolls.
The pho, priced at $7.25 before tax (in a bowl with a circumference comparable to my forearm, I should add), comes with slices of rare beef or chicken in a zestier broth, is garnished with green onion and cilantro that swim in noodles, and a side plate of bean sprouts for an added crunch, some basil leaves for steeping, lime, and jalapeño. Is it "authentic?" Die-hards will be happy, despite a lack of seafood options (traditionally tripe) some have come associate with pho. Go ahead and split two dishes with a friend; the pho and perhaps a $6.99 "bun" option, which is lingo for pho without the broth; a giant bowl of marinated beef, chicken, or (I recommend) pork that's been sprinkled with chopped peanut that lies next to two small egg rolls and sits on top of an incredible amount of rice noodles - literally the noodle version of white rice - and carrots, cucumbers, cilantro and bean sprouts as fresh as can be. (For the price I selfishly wish I could stuff the pho with those same carrots and cucumbers.)
A word of caution Make sure to pass on the boba "bubble" tea. Tea Light's comes from a mix and chewing on rubbery tapioca balls that have been sitting in sugar and flavoring isn't the best $3.50 I've spent.
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