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my piece on Trang's (Tampa)


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my piece on Trang's (Tampa)

andy huse | Aug 6, 2001 11:38 AM

I wrote a small piece for my work's newsletter. Thought someone might find it interesting:

I never thought it would come to this. Really. But I can no longer contain myself. I thought I might be able to keep my treasure a secret, but too many have already discovered the delights of Trang's Viet Cuisine. The way I see it, I have no choice but to spill the mung beans.
Trang's is among the finest restaurants in Tampa. Trust me, I know. I'm writing a book on Tampa's restaurants, and consider it my duty to try every off the wall restaurant I can find-the more obscure, the better. It's research. It doesn't always work out very well. I've eaten suspicious-looking veal cutlets in tiny Greek diners. I've had repulsive crabmeat pasta in a deserted bistro. I've had steak sandwiches that should be illegal; dry, recycled muffins; rancid-smelling iced tea at a burger stand; and deviled crabs that have awakened my gag reflex. Occasionally, however, I find a gem, and the most luminescent of all, the one that never let me down, has been Trang's Viet Cuisine on Fowler Avenue (there is another one on Armenia).
Once, a friend of mine asked me what my favorite restaurant in Tampa is. I did not think twice-Trang's. He looked crestfallen. Perhaps he was expecting some old venerable institution like the Columbia, or some posh bank-breaker like Bern's or Oystercatcher's. No, I said. The best food in town at sane prices is at Trang's.
Trang's is a restaurant in the true sense of the word. The term restaurant originated in Paris hundreds of years ago, and it was the name of a dish, not a place. For those who did not want to eat the heavy, greasy peasant foods at the inns and bars, or for those who had weak digestive systems, a few small cafes offered a brothy soup called restaurant-a concoction meant to "restore" ailing bodies.
A good approximation of the restaurants of the old days is Trang's Pho Soup. The broth is key in this dish, and is made by simmering beef bones and seasoning for a minimum of eight hours. When one orders Pho, you are brought a large bowl of the broth with rice noodles, kind of like ramen without any grease or salt. Several paper-thin slices of raw beef are put into the piping-hot broth. By the time the bowl reaches your table, the beef is cooked. You are also brought a generous plate of bean sprouts, chilies, lime and fresh cinnamon basil to add at your discretion. The basil is essential, the sprouts add a great crunchy texture, and the chilies and lime give the broth a nice kick. Careful with the Vietnamese chilies, though, they are very potent. For the less adventurous, the beef stew is wonderful, and the fried rice is fluffy with barely a trace of oil. The four seasons platter highlights Trang's fabulous rolls: spring, summer, autumn and winter. They are all masterpieces of contrasting tastes, textures and sauces. In fact, you can't go wrong with any of the appetizers.
But instead of describing every detail of the food, I'll tell you why it is sooo good. 1) Trang grows his own herbs and most of his own veggies on his farm in Lutz. Somehow, American "cuisine" missed out on herbs almost entirely, which is a shame. The fresh taste they impart cannot be beaten. 2) Trang uses little or no oil. Unlike Chinese cookery, which bases entire dishes and sauces on the liberal use of oil, Vietnamese food often uses broths and infusions to moisten its dishes. Few menu items are fried at all. 3) Trang has a great vegetarian menu. Many of the dishes use marinaded and grilled tofu in place of meat. Unfortunately for you meatless people, dishes like Pho Soup cannot be replicated without meat, and they do not appear on the veggie menu. 4) The flavors are authentic and subtle. There are no overbearing sweet and sour sauces here, no gloppy brown gravy, and no additives like MSG. You taste the food and nothing more-no powdered stocks and no heavy spicing to cover up inferior ingredients. 5) finally, this stuff is good for you! The absence of oil and the abundance of herbs and vegetables makes Vietnamese cuisine a dieter's paradise.
The good news does not stop here, though. First of all, Trang offers great lunch specials before 3pm-soup, appetizer, and entrée for a mere $5.45. Just turn to the back of the menu. Best of all, Trang is giving USF students, staff, and faculty 30% off dinner for the entire month of September! Just bring your USF ID card, and your whole party gets 30% off the whole meal. Don't be afraid to ask Trang for suggestions, he's very friendly and helpful.
So now, I've spilled the mung beans. Several months ago, I considered writing a Top Ten of my favorite USF-area restaurants, but then I thought again. How would I get a table with all you guys there? So instead of all ten, I offer just one (for now), the best of all. And no, Trang didn't pay me a cent for such effusive praise of his restaurant. He just makes a great bowl of Pho!

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