Since meeting Vietnamese cuisine, Ive become rather addicted. Plain (HA!) beef pho and goi cuon are the necessary items to try to rate a place, IMO. I have to have the refreshing goi cuon rolls, which I have seen called garden rolls, fresh spring rolls, shrimp pork salad rolls and summer rolls in various places.
Ive eaten pho at six different places during the month of December 2003. One place was in Tampa; the others were here on the Pinellas side of the Bay.
Here are my evaluations in no particular order:
Kim Van, 2705 54th Ave. North, St. Pete: Quite good (THANK YOU, WINESMOKE). Dinner visit.
This is a very unpretentious place in a nondescript stripmall. The no-frills dining room was immaculately clean and the server, who spoke good English, was very friendly and helpful. There was a full array of sauces on each table, which we like. There was a mix of clientele, which leaned toward Asian (a good sign in my book). The goi cuon at Kim Van was perhaps the best weve eaten anywhere at $2.95 for a pair of good, big rolls. I had the pho tai, $5.25. Spousal Unit (SU) had chin nam gau gan sach, also $5.25. Both were based on a good quality beef stock with subtle spice overtones. The plate of amendments for the pho included slices of jalapeno, lime, basil, and bean sprouts that were fresh and plenteous.
Mekong, 5944 34th St. N. #20, St. Pete: Very good. Lunch visit.
This is another strip-mall place, nicer inside than outside. Mekong was also sparklingly clean. Again, the wait staff was friendly and helpful. Again, there was a tray of sauces on the table and plenty of Asian clientele, which says something about both the quality and authenticity (if not the size of the family of the owner).
The goi cuon were middling; the vermicelli seemed overcooked and there wasnt much lettuce or fresh herbal flavors. The pho was the best weve had so far. The beef stock was superior. It was subtly flavored with appropriate spices, and very hearty with beef flavor. Instead of the vermicelli weve had elsewhere, the pho featured a linguini-like flat rice noodle. SU, who loves the tendon and tripe, opted for the Pho Mekong (dac biet), at a whopping $5.50. I had the pho tai again, $5.00. The plate of amendments for the pho included slices of jalapeno, lime, basil, and bean sprouts that were fresh and plenteous.
All of the sniffling, nose-dripping steamy goodness of pho was here. I lament that I can only eat three times a day.
For $20.00, it was an outstanding meal. Far better than the $400+ meal we had for our anniversary at Chateau France on Halloween.
Pho Saigon, 7900 4th St. North, St. Pete. Lunch visit.
I had lunch at Pho Saigon alone, a reward for yet another ordeal at my doctors office. I was hungry for pho, and Saigon was handy. The best that I can say is that both the goi coin and pho were serviceable. The waitress was austere, unsmiling and uncommunicative, unlike the man at the register. I wondered if they were a squabbling couple; she was obviously unhappy about something. The restaurant was nice enough inside to make you comfortable.
The goi cuon were large, but unremarkable (2 for $3.00). The pho tai, at $5.25 was okay. The stock itself was unattractive (perhaps not skimmed for scum while cooking?) and not remarkable in flavor. The herbal and vegetable amendments for the pho were adequate. Im glad for the experience, but I wouldnt go out of my way for it again. Given other offerings in that area, I probably wouldnt try it again at all unless I was dying for pho and on a tight schedule.
Noodle Lounge Authentic, Healthy & Fresh (from menu), 3324 Gandy Blvd. Tampa. Lunch visit.
SU and I ate at the Noodle Lounge on a holiday shopping junket to Tampa. We had eaten at Indochine (in the same strip center) twice before, and were wanting to try Café BT (between Noodle Lounge and Indochine), but alas, Café BT was not open for lunch.
We parked on the side of the building and were thrilled as we walked to the door: every available planting space around the restaurant was brimming with fresh herbs and tomato plants. This is a good sign.
Inside, the space is modern, sleek and streamlined, and reeks franchise me. Cute pictures (black and white) of noodle-slurping pho-aficionados adorn every wall. The best is the baby armed with two fists of noodles, and a face adorned with noodles.
If this is the future of fast food, Im all for it, although Im not sure how quality control could be assured.
The food was good. The service was good. Im not expert enough to comment on the Authentic, Healthy & Fresh claim except to say that it seemed quite healthy and fresh to me. From my admittedly limited perspective, the Noodle Lounge would seem like a really good place to introduce a potentially squeamish novice to Vietnamese cuisine. The menu is quite limited, and although it features what many would consider very exotic ingredients and dishes (lotus stem salad, glass noodles, tree ear mushrooms, lily buds), the wait-staff did a good job of making us aware of what to do with condiments, soup amendments and eating implements.
Goi cuon, under the guise of Vietnamese Fresh Rolls were $4.95 for two rolls. Hanoi Beef, otherwise known as pho, is $8.95.
The quality of beef in the pho (only 1 pho available, and not even called pho on the menu) was, Im certain FAR above what most pho-eaters in Vietnam eat on a daily basis. It was lovely, tender and tasty. No tripe, tendon or beef ball available to put off the timid.
Your sauces will be individually served to you in pre-approved portions. Im sure you could ask for something, but we didnt.
SU and I did giggle over one incongruity: The menu says, under the heading of NOODLES, that all our . . . [stuff] . . . are cooked fresh every day to ensure the best quality and healthy eating. Directly below that is the description of Hanoi Beef, which takes days to prepare.
Sa Sa Sushi Bar Japanese Vietnamese Restaurant: 27 4th St. North, St. Pete. Many visits, Lunch and Dinner. If they served pho for breakfast, wed probably be there, too.
This downtown place is closest to us. We eat there often enough that we are recognized.
The interior features original artwork that is for sale by the artist. The artist is good, IMO.
The menu for dinner features 13 appetizers (Summer Rolls, my needed goi cuon, 2 for $2.95). There are 14 Traditional Japanese dishes served with soup, salad, vegetables, and rice. The prices range from $8.95 to $15.95.
The $15.95 Sa Sa Deluxe is a HUGE selection of steak teriyaki, sushi, sashimi & tempura. For a dollar less, you can opt for chicken teriyaki, sushi & tempura.
Six traditional Vietnamese dishes are offered, $5.25 to $6.75. I first tried Bun tom nuong cha gio ; grilled shrimp & egg rolls served on vermicelli noodles in a bowl with a dash of roasted peanuts. That was August 4th. The description of the dish underplays its charms. August 4th was blisteringly hot. The bun was cool and refreshing, with a sauce served on the side that accentuated everything. Beside the bed of noodles nestled a bed of lettuce and bean sprouts, all deliciously cool to one who had been traipsing about downtown. I dont remember what SU had that day. I know that we had an order of the fried spring rolls and the cool summer rolls. Sa Sa made us converts and seekers of Vietnamese cuisine.
For that reason, Id say that Sa Sa would be a Pinellas location to bring novices. They can make the food welcoming and inclusive. Is it the most authentic? I dunno, but its dependably good, IMO. Id welcome other responses about Sa Sa.
Ive already written about Taste of Asia, which IS a rather ambitious name. To anyone that I offended in that missive, I extend my apologies
We have also eaten at the Tampa Bamboo Flute. That was truly our fist experience of Vietnamese cuisine. I think that we ate there twice, but both visits fall well outside the parameters of experience within the last month. The experiences that we had there were good.