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The Eat Beat Dining around South Florida
with Mike Mayo

Who needs food halls? This Davie strip mall is a fantasyland for Asian-food fans

Food halls have become a thing in South Florida, and I have found a new favorite. It is not Grandview Public Market in West Palm Beach, nor upscale St. Roch Market in Miami’s Design District, nor the tony La Centrale in Brickell.

My favorite food hall is actually not a food hall, but rather an unglamorous, aging strip mall in Davie that is an Asian-food lover’s paradise. It has six, reasonably priced eateries and a wildly diverse, global supermarket that offers goat neck from its halal butcher, Chinese red-bean-paste buns from its bakery and dozens of types of fish (including sheepshead and hogfish) from its seafood counter.

Its official name is Carriage Hills Plaza, but most people call it the Foodtown shopping center after the resident supermarket. It is located at the northwest corner of Stirling and Davie roads. It may not technically be a food hall, but in spirit, it is the same: a place where an eater can roam and graze to craft a satisfying whole meal, and a place where you can slurp Vietnamese beef soup for breakfast (Pho 79), munch on a crusty, small baguette layered with pork and pate for lunch (545° Banh Mi Cafe) and nibble on frog legs for a midnight snack (Brandon Asian Cuisine, open until 2 a.m. on weekends).

And then, there is Foodtown, an 11-year-old supermarket that its manager says is “a place to get everything.” The shopping center also features a Hong Kong-style barbecue restaurant that opened last year (Tasty Cafe), a Thai restaurant that has been in business for nearly 20 years (named A Thai Restaurant) and a Taiwanese dessert shop (recently renamed Hanji, formerly known as Sweet Tooth Shavery). An Asian vegetarian eatery (MaMa Tofu) and a seafood hot pot restaurant (Cajun Boil) are scheduled to open soon.

Here is what I found on a recent tour.

Pho 79

It is 10:15 a.m., and a steaming bowl of pho tai chin nam — beef noodle soup with slices of rare eye round, brisket and flank steak — has just been delivered. I am surrounded by chili sauces and a plate with proper garnishes: bean sprouts, lime wedges, jalapenos, Thai basil and culantro. The rice noodles in the aromatic broth are thin and white, and the brisket and flank slices are dark and chewy. This is the Vietnamese breakfast of champions, and I am one happy eater.

When I start, only one other booth is occupied. By the time I finish my small bowl ($8.25), with sweat beading and sinuses dripping, a half-dozen other tables are full, all with Asians. The scene, like the soup, is deeply satisfying.

Pho 79 opens at 10 a.m. daily, an austere and authentic slice of Vietnam. Besides pho, it serves rice and vermicelli platters and rice-noodle-wrapped rolls. Opened by Jacky Truong in 2011, this is the flagship of a growing regional chain that now has five eateries, with the latest opening this month in Coral Springs. Pho 79 recently expanded at this location, taking over an adjacent space and adding a patio. The restaurant has lower prices and more humble decor than nearby Brandon Asian. Brandon’s broth may have a tad more depth and flavor, but until this week I had never eaten a Pho 79 bowl in the morning. It tasted fresher and more vibrant than ones I have had later in the day.

Pho 79, 6451 Stirling Road, Davie, 954-797-9700, BestPhoHouseDavie.com, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (until 9 p.m. Sunday-Monday).

Tasty Cafe

Whole ducks, slabs of pork and other roasted meats hang near the front register at Tasty Cafe, which opened in December 2017. This is Hong Kong-style barbecue, a cramped, no-frills place where milk tea is served in Styrofoam cups and generous rice platters ($9.95 for single meat, $11.95 for two varieties) are scarfed down at lacquered, wooden tables without fuss.

I’ve been twice, once toward the end of the day when the selection was lean and I felt rushed. My visit this week was much better, a late Saturday lunch with a plate that featured marvelous pork belly with crisped skin atop a juicy cube of meat that had just the right amount of fat, and cleaved duck that was fun to chew, bone bits and all. The plate was adorned with two stalks of bok choy. Tasty Cafe also features noodle soups, but the one I had a few months ago was a bit greasy.

Tasty Cafe, 6477 Stirling Road, Davie, 954-908-5122, TastyCafeDavie.com, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Monday (until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday), closed Tuesdays.

Foodtown

“An international food market — a place to get everything,” is how manager Mary Lu describes Foodtown, and she’s not kidding. A bakery sells Chinese custard tarts ($1.79) and deep-fried, red-bean-paste sesame balls ($1.99). A hot-food counter dispenses vegetable samosas (75 cents) and Indian entrees. The produce department features dragon fruit and Thai bananas. The fish counter has dozens of fish varieties, four types of clams (including razor) and Vietnamese crab. There’s a halal butcher with lamb and goat, offal of every variety and rows lined with products from South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.

Lu says customers come from as far as Orlando, with many regulars from Miami and Boca Raton. Foodtown has been in Davie for 11 years, owned by an Indian family and independent of the supermarket chain in the Northeast with the same name (and the catchy ad jingle known to New Yorkers of a certain age). A sister Foodtown operates in West Palm Beach, and one will soon open in Homestead.

“We have 60 varieties of rice — basmati, long-grain, short-grain, broken, 10 types of halal rice,” Lu says. “We have so many specialized products — Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Chinese, Vietnamese, the Philippines. Our Asian customers are demanding. They want what they know.”

Foodtown, 6431 Stirling Road, Davie, 954-797-7790, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily (until 10 p.m. Sunday).

Hanji

Those who like sweet and cool treats will want to go to the plaza’s eastern side to find Hanji, a Taiwanese dessert parlor. It opened in 2016 as Sweet Tooth Shavery, but owner Tien-ni Kuo changed the name last month to the Taiwanese word for sweet potato, the shape that the island nation off the Chinese coast resembles.

The store is popular with families and millennials for its colorful shaved ice, boba teas and snow creams (a hybrid of shaved ice and ice cream made in-house from blocks of frozen milk). Staffers wear shirts that read, “Not that powdered stuff,” trumpeting the store’s fresh product. Kuo, a University of Miami graduate from Taiwan, started the store after missing the flavors of home. I had a chocolate snow cream ($6 small), topped with cocoa puffs and chocolate sauce and served with a glob of condensed milk. It was different in a good way. Other flavors include matcha, sesame and milk tea.

Hanji, 6403 Stirling Road, Davie, 954-908-5355, HanjiOfficial.com, noon-10 p.m. daily (until 9 p.m. Sunday).

545° Banh Mi Cafe

This 4-year-old eatery from owner Minh Do pays tribute to the street food of his native Vietnam, a place for quick, convenient and inexpensive banh mis (all less than $5) and grab-and-go plastic trays such as rice vermicelli with grilled pork ($8.50) and summer rolls ($5.50).

Banh mis are Vietnamese sandwiches served on small baguettes that are a vestige of the nation’s French colonial days. This cafe bakes its bread (and makes most items) in house, and “545°” refers to the perfect temperature for producing loaves that are crusty outside and chewy inside.

There are nine varieties, and I ordered the No. 3 ($4.25, barbecue pork and pate). Thin slices of meat were topped with pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, jalapeno and a smear of house mayonnaise. I added some sriracha. The crunch of the veggies was nice, but the balance of the sandwich tilted a little too much toward bread over meat, which got lost. Still, as sub-$5 subs go, this was a pretty good deal and small meal.

545° Banh Mi Cafe, 6461 Stirling Road, Davie, 954-581-5048, 545BanhMiDavie.com, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Brandon Asian Cuisine

I’ve been back several times since I awarded three stars to Brandon Asian in 2016, and I still love the restaurant’s pho (with broth simmered from beef bones and aromatic for 20 hours) and other items, including clay pot shrimp.

This offshoot of Pho Brandon in Sunrise opened in 2015 and aims to be more than a soup joint. It features hot pots, frog legs and other seafood specialties. The restaurant is more refined and comfortable than other eateries in the plaza, with a dozen wood-trimmed booths along the windows and larger tables, along with a private karaoke room, in the back. The place is often filled with multigenerational Asian families, always a good sign. Owner Hong Nguyen oversees the kitchen, and Brandon Asian stays open until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturday.

Brandon Asian Cuisine, 6417 Stirling Road, 954-908-5153, Facebook.com/BrandonAsianCuisine, open 11 a.m.-midnight daily (until 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday).

Coming soon

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail. Join the conversation at Facebook.com/groups/LetsEatSouthFlorida.

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