Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Viet Garden Review: Boring Place, Adventurous Tastes

The area near Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue in Orlando is known variably as “Little Saigon,” “Little Vietnam,” “Viettown,” and the “Vi-Mi District.” But whatever you call it (officially, Colonialtown), the area is one of the most vibrant and growing, predominantly Vietnamese districts in the United States. There are small grocery stores, medical offices, attorneys, CPAs and other businesses catering to the Vietnamese community. There are some funky Asian gift stores, karaoke bars, anime shops, video stores, boba tea shops, and most importantly of all, Vietnamese restaurants a plenty.

I recently stopped by a Little Saigon institution: Viet Garden on Highway 50. This perennial favorite offers a fusion of Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, with an emphasis on typical Viet soups and Thai noodle bowls.

My guest and I started with the Nam Mon An Choi ($8.95). The Viet Combo for Two featured a spring roll, a garden roll, a beef skewer, shrimp toast and fried wontons. The beef was tender and flavorful but was not served on a skewer. Instead, a mound of beef was served in a small pile in the center of the plate. The wontons had no detectable taste other than “greasy.” The garden roll had a similar “greasy” taste. The spring roll, however, was delicious with large shrimp rolled with vegetables in rice paper. Sometimes spring rolls can be a little rubbery and hard to chew. Not tonight, we both enjoyed our halves of the shrimp rolls. Our favorite item on the dish was the shrimp toast. When I next return to Viet Garden, shrimp toast, Banh Mi Chien Tom ($4.50), will be my appetizer of choice.

My guest, not being a culinary adventurist, chose Bo Zao Bong Cai Xanh ($8.95). Sounds exotic, but it’s just Beef Stir Fried with Broccoli. The beef was marinated in a rich wine sauce and cooked with garlic and butter. The broccoli and carrots were cooked perfectly as well. Broccoli can be served too limp and soggy or too crisp and crunchy. The broccoli in my guest’s dish was perfect. The meal included a side of white rice that was very sticky and had a peculiar, starchy taste.

I, while no Andrew Zimmerman, have a more adventurous palate, and chose Pho Dac Biet ($6.50), Hanoi Noodle Soup. The soup was described on the menu as “rice noodle soup with beef, medium rare steak, brisket, flank, tendon, beef ball and tripe.” Now, I admit, some of the ingredients seemed a little out of the ordinary to me, and I kidded my guest about the beef balls being something other than the beef meatballs I knew them to be. Being a trooper, and wannabe Survivor contestant, I dove right in.

Some of the meat was hard to tell apart from one another, but there was certainly no “medium rare steak” in my bowl. Everything seemed cooked so thoroughly that the meat became tasteless rubber and a chore to chew. The brisket and flank steak were the least rubbery in the bowl and I even enjoyed the bit of tendon I tried. But something came over me when I bit into the beef balls – I might have overdone the acting a bit when explaining the dish to my guest. I must have even fooled my own brain into thinking they were something I shouldn’t be eating. I tried to sample the tripe, but it was stringy, completely white in color, and looked oh so squiggly and “intestiney.” I just couldn’t do it. I was left enjoying the broth, which had a terrific floral bouquet from the lemongrass and cilantro, and the rice noodles. Luckily there were plenty of noodles.

I think I will emulate my guest next time, and order something within my comfort zone. Survivor's not for me. Amazing Race?

For beverages, we enjoyed Tra Thai, or Thai Iced Tea ($2.50). The spicy, milk teas were simply delicious. They’re similar to chai lattes you might enjoy at Starbucks, but so much better here at Viet Garden.

Service was professional, but our server didn’t have much of a personality, visiting our table only to take our order, bring our dishes and present the bill. Not once did he check on us during the meal, or ask for our opinions. With a menu as diverse and extensive as the one at Viet Garden, a more out-going waiter might have been better able to offer advice and answer questions about the dishes.

The interior of the restaurant was spotlessly clean and very spacious, but just as boring as the waiter. Tropical scenes painted on the walls helped tone down the sterile feel of the cold tile floor, glass-topped tables and straight-backed metal chairs just a little bit. If the place ever converts to a Chinese buffet, the new owners won’t need to hire an interior decorator.

Our trip to Viet Garden was pleasant, and we enjoyed the meal. Next time no tripe or beef balls for me, and more shrimp toast and Thai iced tea, please.

3 Survivor: Vietnam Moments out of 5

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fuddmain said...

I go to Viet Garden often. I usually get Pad Thai or one of the soups (without the unusual ingredients). I should point out I think you got the names of the rolls reversed. The garden rolls are the uncooked rolls with the shrimp and the spring rolls are fried.

I love the garden rolls with the peanut sauce.

Eating Orlando said...

Thank you. You're right, I did get the two rolls mixed up. Noted. Sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

If you ever get Pho again, request to get your steak to be put separately on another plate. That way, once it gets to your table, you can just put the meat in and the broth will cook it to "medium rare." The steak was rare when they put it in your bowl, but once they poured the premade broth in, it cooked the steak.

Also, if you haven't been yet, you should definitely try Thai House on east 50. It's across the street from Office Depot and close to the intersection of Bumpby. It's a small little restaurant with GREAT thai food.

Eating Orlando said...

Thanks so much for the tips and suggestions. I appreciate it.

Eating Orlando

Kevin L. said...

If you want good Viet food, I suggest going to Pho Hoa. It's not on that strip, but it's a little ways down. Near Houlihans. It has better and more authentic Vietnamese food. Also, the service is definetly a lot better. The restaurant is pretty nice inside; lots of really nice plant life, a fishtank and it has more color compared to Viet Garden. Oh yeah, the owner is a really sweet guy as well. He loves talking to his customers and making sure they're taken care of quite well. Definetly the best in town.

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