Thursday, July 14, 2005

FLASH AND PHO

Posted on Thu, Jul 14, 2005 at 4:00 AM

When it comes to hot dishes, rice vermicelli is no prom queen. She's got all the makings but is just too plain, too demure. Look at her flimsy dressing compared to her flashier Italian cousin, spaghetti and meatballs, done up in red velvet. But as many learn on prom night, it's not so much the dressing as the personality that really counts. Really. This is precisely why I cherish my memory of prom night so much: My date introduced me to rice vermicelli for the very first time.

He ordered. In Vietnamese. When the food came out of the kitchen – an oversized bowl twisted with haystacks of noodles and dotted with spring rolls – it looked, well, naked. My date picked up a clear sauce flecked with shredded carrots and dumped it in my bowl, mixing everything together. He shoved a pair of chopsticks in my hands and scrutinized my next move. "It's like spaghetti," he said, shoveling a bite into his mouth. "But better."

I was appalled, being the good little Italian girl that I am. Rather than storm out and spend the night alone, I decided to take a bite, sure that the next words out of my mouth would be, "This pitiful plate of noodles needs sauce." I was surprised to hear myself utter, "Man, this is great. What's it called?"

My experience took place at Vinh's, one of the only Vietnamese restaurants in town at that time, and now we have many, and the newest addition is Vietnam Town. Orlando may not be much for genuine Italian, but we have a whole district of Vietnamese. And Vietnam Town is the kind of place that brings the Vi-Mi district to new heights. Not because it's better than the others, but because it's just so overwhelmingly big, as well as slightly gaudy and full of charisma.

As soon as you step through the heavy crystal and brass doors, a waft of jasmine fragrance overtakes you. Then you're virtually smacked in the face by a Disney-esque plaster island, complete with trees and a pond, which separates the foyer from the enormous main room. Once inside, there's a multitude of garish tables, thronged by heavily lacquered chairs with a shell inlay of "Vietnam Town" sprawled across the top of each.

I was impressed with the service at Vietnam Town. Not only was our waitress attentive, but when an English explanation escaped her, she sent a manager over to thoroughly answer our questions. Everything was brought to us correctly and in a timely manner, and the smiling staff seemed to care about every guest's experience. The avocado smoothie ($3.25), a sweet and creamy blend, is an easy recommendation from the restaurant's impressive drink bar.

We started with our usual summer rolls ($2.75), fresh rice paper wrapped around shrimp, pork and fresh herbs. They were good enough, but couldn't stand up to those made across the street at Little Saigon. Then we were able to challenge our palates with a roll of a different season, the winter roll ($2.75), which is an apt name, considering the heavier flavor of this wrap, filled with pickled veggies, egg and Chinese sausage. I won't give up my summer-roll habit, but these were an interesting change.

For an entree, my partner tried the pho with beef and tendons ($5.95), a delightful Vietnamese soup that originated in Hanoi. Vietnam Town's was a standard bowl of rich beef broth and delicate rice noodles. What it lacked in toasted spices, it made up for with the whopping plate of fresh saw leaf cilantro, limes, bean sprouts, chilies and basil, all of which greatly enhanced its depth. A word of caution: Unless you're familiar with the Vietnamese language, you'll need help deciphering the pho portion of the menu, which is not translated.

Naturally, rice vermicelli ($13.95) was my choice for an entree, though I couldn't decide on a topping. I finally landed on shrimp paste (kind of like a shrimp meatball) and enjoyed the expertly grilled pork cured in sparky marinade and charred to blackened crispiness.

So, while I should know that you can't judge the character of a prom queen by her cover, Vietnam Town did surprise me. Though overdressed, she has her own unique style and a charm that shows promise, even in this competitive neighborhood.

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