Last weekend, as I was introducing a friend to the large asian supermarket (Hoa-Lan) on Hwy. 19 (aka 34th St.), I saw a sign posted for a new Vietnamese Restaurant, also on 19. The sign was mostly in Vietnamese, but, lucky for me, I speak food in several languages.
Spousal Unit (SU) is out of town on the annual pilgrimage to southern Indiana in search of the elusive wild morel. Since I was unable to stalk the wild morel with him, I decided I could at least console myself at a new eatery.
So it happened that on Monday, I headed up to Cafe Lien, formerly known as Lynn's Cafe for a late lunch before going in to work at 6:00p.m. Lien's has not changed ownership (or signs on the street as of Monday), just menus.
I was the only diner at 1:30pm. No one was to be seen when I came in, so I went to the door of the kitchen to present myself. The gentleman who seated me was tentative when offering me the menu.
"We only serve Vietnamese food now, he said. I assured him that that was precisely why I was visiting. He took my drink order and left me to peruse the menu.
When I asked for an order of goi cuon and pho tai without reference to the menu numbers, he seemed elated and exclaimed about my ability to speak Vietnamese. A growling stomach is fluent in many tongues, IMO.
The iced tea that I ordered to drink was nondescript. I tend to like it quite strong and this wasn't, but that's hardly surprising.
The goi cuon were good, but the dipping sauce was odd in my inexpert experience. Unlike the hoisin-based sauce garnished with peanuts that I have been served elsewhere, the dipping sauce was distinctly peanutty - almost to the exclusion of all other flavors. A rigorous amendment with the tableside bottles of hoisin and sriracha soon set things to rights.
The pho tai was good. The beef stock was clear and fragrant and piping hot. The flavor was delicate, with just a flirtation of star anise in the background. The rare beef was sliced paper thin. The noodles were the appropriate flat rice noodles and the soup was garnished with scallions and thin-sliced white onion.
The usual accompaniments - bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, lime wedges, and basil, were served on the side along with another herb that I am not familiar with. The mystery herb had leaves 4-5 inches long, perhaps an inch and a half wide at the widest point with finely serrated edges. Its flavor was very subtle and it made a nice addition to the soup. I asked what the mystery herb was and received a reply; it doesn't seem to have a common equivalent in English, and my Universal Food Translator is sometimes limited to "bring me a plate of that." I apologize, but I do not remember what it was. The bean sprouts were not as fresh as I would have liked, but I imagine that will be an issue as long as their customer volume is very low.
According to the proprietress, the menu change had only been effect for three days. The cafe is large, clean, light and airy. Each table is set with the expected complement of condiments: hoisin, sriracha, fish sauce and salt and pepper. While I was eating, two of the former regulars strolled in hoping for a fix of home fries and eggs. Poor schmucks, I thought, they just dont know what theyre missing.
Because bun bo Hue was listed on the marquee out front, I asked the proprietress if she was from Hue. No, she explained, she hails from a burg between Saigon and Hue. She was happy to answer all of my questions and seemed pleased by my interest. I told her about the Vietnamese cookbooks that SU had given me for Christmas (from my wish-list) and how that had helped me to understand the menus more. I dont necessarily want to cook Vietnamese, but the more that I know, the more I appreciate the cuisine. I told her that Id love to attend some cooking classes again, only to appreciate what goes into the cuisine and to learn about more dishes that I have tried. Like everyone else that I have talked to about this, she didnt seem game to take this on. I cant blame her; a small business owner has a full plate.
Liens/Lynns is located at 700 34th St. North in St. Pete. Despite some minor problems, I drove home with a happy tummy thinking about what I will try on my next visit. Im hopeful that this Vietnamese restaurant which is so much closer to my neck of the woods will make the change from diner to Vietnamese eatery successfully. Im going to try to go back before the traffic picks up too much, so I can ask questions to my heart (and palates) content.
Im writing from memory today, so please excuse any errors. The take-out menus werent ready, so I have only my fond memory and lousy spelling for reference.
Prices were in line with any other Vietnamese place Ive eaten at locally, and less than some. My lunch totaled $10. I remember distinctly driving home with the flavor of that mystery herb still lingering on my palate while all of the blooming jacaranda trees along my route seemed to wave their happy, purple frills.