This probably says it all: Every time I think about Viet Garden, I have an urge to ring in a to-go order for garden rolls. It's a compulsion a deep-seated one.
Back in 1999 when Orlando Weekly last reviewed Viet Garden, I was working a summer job down the street from the Colonial Drive restaurant. I worked with a Vietnamese friend, and she came up with a spectacular way to spend break time: garden rolls and Vietnamese iced coffee. Daily, we called in orders, taking turns running up the street for the pick-up. On really rough days, we headed to Viet Garden for dinner. It was one of the most delicious habits I've ever formed, including the part where the peanut sauce dribbles down my chin.
That same friend came to town recently, and we decided to have lunch at where else? Viet Garden. While we sat and waited for our coffee and garden rolls, I leaned over and asked two very important questions: "Is the Vietnamese food in Seattle as good as here?" and "Which is your favorite Vietnamese restaurant in town?" To which she replied, "No" and "Viet Garden," which confirmed my observational hypotheses: 1) Orlando has terrific Vietnamese food, and 2) Viet Garden, which has been around since 1994, is one of our mainstays.
Charlie Tang, the current owner and operator since 1998, has done a wonderful job with his domain. A long time ago, before he took over, it was dirty and stinky. Now, I can't find an unbused table in the place. The subtle smells of incense and fresh food entice my palate. A mural of tropical, exotic Vietnam graces every wall, and although they are somewhat grade-schoolish, the art lends a homegrown feel. Pink and red tablecloths and white tile floors only enhance the Miami Vice colors covering the walls.
The Thai food served here is OK, but my advice is to opt for one of the many solid Vietnamese dishes they serve. On several occasions I've ordered pad Thai ($7.95) and wished I had saved the Thai experience for the nearby Thai House. It was overly sweet and an unnaturally bright color that made me think of brake fluid. "I think it's made with ketchup," my Vietnamese friend confided. But it wasn't all bad. The shrimp, chicken, egg and noodles tasted fresh and a plethora of crushed peanuts made finishing this dish compulsory.
As for the garden rolls, I'll say it again: Viet Garden has spectacular ones ($2.95). Years ago, I didn't like them; compared to others in town, they were rubbery and stale. Not anymore. Tang has brightened up the garden roll scene and they now rival my other favorites in town. The rice wrappers are always pliable with a willowy chew, and the meat and shrimp flavors stand out against the backdrop of basil and scallion.
There is a fine selection of vermicelli dishes, such as a personal favorite with grilled pork and spring rolls ($6.95), or shrimp paste on sugar cane ($7.95). My ultimate favorite, though, is the rice vermicelli with grilled chicken and fresh lemon ($7.50). The combination is substantial yet refreshingly light with the tang of lemon sparking the taste of fresh cilantro and bean sprouts.
The salad portion of the menu is another highlight. By no means "rabbit food," the salads alone are suitable for a full meal. For instance, the golden pancake ($6.50) is a coconut-infused crepe made with rice flour and turmeric, which gives it a blond hue. It's ever so crispy, almost to a fault if they weren't so damn perfect. I haven't found a crepe in town I like better. Topped with grilled pork and shrimp, it's adorned with delicate, aromatic fresh mint leaves. Other salads I recommend are the green papaya ($6.95) and the spicy squid ($6.95).
The menu is vast, and I don't want to leave anything out, but it is beyond the scope of this space to include all that is great about Viet Garden. If you're in the mood for phË? or egg noodle soup, you're covered. Vermicelli or rice platters? Definitely. Fried rice? Especially the curried one served in a cored-out pineapple. I'm getting hungry just writing about it.
Here I go, placing another order to go….
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