(See 12 photos of Thuy Trang's bowls of pho here.)
The question over who serves the best pho in Detroit doesn't ignite a passionate debate in quite the same way as the best coney dog, Detroit-style pizza, or shawarma might. That's partly a result of demographics as Detroit's Vietnamese population isn't what it is in places like, say, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Houston. But bowls of quality pho (pronounced "fuh") can be found here, with much of it (though not all) clustered in perhaps the closest thing we have to a Chinatown, or something like Seattle's International District: the sea of 1970s strip malls and midcentury real estate developments that are the fabric of Madison Heights.
Thuy Trang — a Vietnamese restaurant named after the actress who played the yellow Power Ranger who died in 2001 in a car accident in San Francisco at age 27 — is one of the pho houses that always seems to come up in "best bowl" and "authentic" conversation.
Why is that? The place to start an assessment is in the broth. Thuy Trang meets what, very informally, seems to be the widely held criterion of good broth. The long-boiled beef bone and fat provides depth that dovetails with sweetness from a mitt full of star anise, cardamom, cinnamon, and fennel. Thuy Trang owner and cook Paige Chang says some of our Vietnamese restaurants skip the bone in the broth prep, but Thuy doesn't — so we get a clean, full-flavored soup that's flecked with scallions and packed with rice noodles.
Pho is essentially Vietnam's national dish (it's also typically enjoyed as a restorative breakfast bowl in its native land, though here it's lunch or dinner fare) and pho bac is a standard with cuts of tender, rare to medium beef. At Thuy Trang, the go-to version of that is Pho Dac Viet Thuy Trang, and it's wild with tendon, tripe, meatballs, flank, and brisket.
If intestines and tendon (which dangles like a deranged piece of calamari from your chopsticks) and are too much for your taste, you can mix and match any of the aforementioned beef cuts. The falling-apart, flavorful brisket and thin-sliced eye round combo is a good, simple, and safe route. And all the pho bowls comes with a portfolio of bean sprouts, jalapenos, lime, and green herbs, like cilantro and basil, that should be torn up and dropped in as you go.
Aside from pho, the bun bo hue is worth a look as it's perhaps the No. 2 bowl in parts of Vietnam, especially the central Vietnamese city of its origin, Hue (pronounced "way"). But bun bo hue is for those who won't mind pig knuckles bobbing in their broth. And no one should, because those knuckles and their marrow, and the chunk of coagulated pig's blood that looks like a small slice of dark jello in your soup, produce a funky, ferric flavor that complements the lemony base. Thuy Trang serves it under a small pile of green and white onions with round rice noodles, and the package is infused with a hit of sate, a chili and garlic oil, leaving a spicy broth with a volcanic color pallet.
A tamer option is the hoanh thanh mi, with slabs of barbecued pork and pork wontons in a mellow but deep chicken-based soup holding an underbroth nest of thin egg noodles. Tubes of green onion and folds of lettuce float on the surface. The menu holds other versions of the egg noodle soup that mostly sound good (though I skipped them because they include imitation crabmeat, the seafood industry's answer to hot dogs).
Because we're all focused on the pho, you don't hear a lot about the merits of Vietnamese salads, but you should. Their wonders partly owe to the sweet and zingy vinaigrette made of fish sauce, sugar, and vinegar. The best at Thuy Trang is the bo tai chanh, in which a tangled pile of vibrant, heavily marinated orange and white carrot and onion tassels sit underneath drapes of razor thin, lemony beef slices. That's graveled over with a layer of crushed peanuts and basil. Also try the goi ngo sen tom thit, with shrimp, lotus, and tabs of acidic pressed pork.
If you're not in the mood for soup or salad, the bun chao tom cha gio with a mound vermicelli, sugarcane shrimp, fresh herbs, carrots, bean sprouts, and two pork spring rolls is always a safe bet. (Be sure to drench it in the vinaigrette.) But perhaps an even better choice is the stir-fried lemongrass beef (or chicken), which arrives with a pile of white rice and a stimulating mix of lemony beef, red peppers, and caramelized onions.
Chang and her husband, Shawn, recently purchased Thuy Trang, which originally opened 18 years ago. They freshened up its no frills, family-friendly dining room, and all the bowls, which are mammoth and difficult to finish in one sitting, run under $10. Entrees are a few bucks more, and it's all a bargain at that rate. As for the drinks, the sour sop shake is a winner as a slightly sour — but more sweet and creamy — frozen drink. And there's little better for a caffeine jolt than the iced Vietnamese coffee, which involves coarse grounds filtered in a phin that are mixed with sweetened condensed milk. As with everything else on the menu Thuy Trang does it as well as can be asked.