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Tuesday, August 29, 2000

Opposites attract

Posted on Tue, Aug 29, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Vietnamese cuisine exemplifies the beauty of contrast. Hot and cool. Crunchy and soft. Fresh and cured. These seemly antagonistic characteristics come together beautifully in some interesting and satisfying dishes at Vinh's, located in the heart of Orlando's Vietnamese district.

Our meal began with a dish described as "lotus roots with shrimp, pork and sour salad" ($8.95). Easily enough for a meal, the thinly sliced lotus root, red pepper, pickled celery and cucumber, shrimp and pork fashioned a lively and very crisp combination. Sour pickling juice was sprinkled on top of the mixture along with fresh mint and peanuts. An acquired taste for some, this dish will surely be a favorite of those who enjoy cool salads reminiscent of the 1970s.

"Barbecue pork rolls" ($2.50) offer a more traditional initiation to the Vinh's experience. Rice sheets wrap fresh layers of lettuce, vermicelli, pork and shrimp. Culinary disparity is achieved by slathering the rolls in a smooth peanut sauce.

An intriguing list of entrees is available for simplified ordering, or diners can choose from an extensive list of fried fish and crustaceans, soups, pork, chicken, vegetarian and shrimp dishes. We chose the latter route and were very pleased with the "fried salted shrimp with shells on" ($9.95). About 12 large shrimp were presented in a roughly textured tempura-like batter that was fried until deeply brown. Lightly sautéed onions and red peppers lent their kind sweetness to the salty flavors, while the shells added crunch. Vinh's fish sauce had a tangy attitude that rounded out the dish's triad of salty, sour and sweet flavors.

Do-it-yourself diners shouldn't miss No. 130, "fine rice vermicelli with barbecue pork served with rice sheets" ($7.50). A large plate arrived from the kitchen piled high with cool carrots, bean sprouts, lettuce, and fresh herbs next to warm vermicelli and sweetly smoked pork. Stiff rice sheets were accompanied by bowl of warm water used for softening them. This dish is fun, as each morsel is different than the last. And it's just plain cool to eat with your fingers.

For the closest thing to Asian soul food, try the huge bowls of soup -- especially the "rice vermicelli with curry chicken" ($5.95). Plentiful chicken, noodles, shallots and sweet potatoes make this creamy, delicious soup quite substantial.

There are several refreshing ways to top yourself off at Vinh's. "Lychee" ($2.25) is composed with an apricotlike fruit suspended in clear, sweet nectar. "Vietnamese jelly and sweet mung beans with coconut milk" ($2.25), was a richly refreshing but very funky concoction with a lovely silken texture.

Vinh's staff is generally attentive but tends to lag once a meal is completed. The variety and quality makes Vinh's a good place to delve into Vietnamese culinary eclecticism.


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