Vietnamese in Mills 50

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    It's not like throwing tofu in stir-fries or over noodles is exactly ground-breaking in these parts. Asian restaurants abound in soy offerings, and one of the tastiest tofu dishes in town comes from the long-standing Anh Hong, at the crossroads of Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive. (Parking is around back, so don't be thrown off by the busy intersection.) Just say, "No. 146," to jump into "fried tofu stir fried with lemongrass and chili" ($7.95). The peppery batter flavors up the curd and makes for a satisfying bite once you spear a chunk amidst the lemongrass, red chilis, celery, onions and snow peas, all mixed in a sesame-oil-tinged sauce.

    The thing that'll take the longest is making your way through the eight-panel takeout menu, which offers the subheadings "squid" and "family dishes." Good news for vegetarians: There are 21 choices under "vegetables" ($7.95-$9.95) making use of noodles, vegetables, rice cakes, rice crepes and eggs.

    Subs ($2.50-$5.50) are another cheap staple, with crisp cucumbers, carrots and cilantro added to Vietnamese deli-style meats (bologna and ham), beef stew, grilled pork, beef, chicken or tofu loaded on "French sub" bread. My recent snacking on a bologna sub found the meat to be a bit of a mystery but OK when crunched along with the greenery and the fresh roll.

    Smoothies ($3) are another sure bet at Anh Hong. Mango, strawberry and banana are familiar flavors, along with the more exotic jackfruit, sour sop, sapota and durian (the super-stinky tropical fruit). Experiment if you feel daring, but some fruits, like durian, are an acquired (blech) taste. Add an order of summer rolls (two for $2.50) for a fast takeout lunch.

    The real mystery is what's in the refrigerator case. Neon-colorful cups of gelatins mixed with unrecognizable fruits mingle with strange plastic-wrapped sandwiches and rice blobs; the baffling descriptions on the labels render the contents lost in translation – sample if you dare.

    "Smell my fingers," my dining comrade commanded after decapitating a freshly boiled crawfish, thrusting her cayenne-tinged digits into my face. The scent of garlic, spices and the sea made me want to lap that hand like a thirsty mutt, thumb to pinky and everywhere in between. But that wouldn't have been appropriate, given my unstained hands were longing to be reddened and licked themselves. And that we were dining in public.

    If thoughts of Louisiana crawfish lead to thoughts of sea life caked in crude oil, rest assured these crawfish are farm-raised. The only thing crude is the manner in which the little buggers are devoured – twist off the head and suck the juice, then pinch the tail and pull the meat. A pretty mess, no doubt, and we devoured a pound ($6.99) of the medium-sized crustaceans while going through about a thousand paper napkins. (Where are the Wet-Naps?) Our seasoning choice – "sha bang" – amounted to a blend of lemon pepper, garlic butter and Cajun spices. Even at "medium" heat it was enough to set the nose of another of my dining companions to trickling, requiring strategic placement of the bone bucket. On the side, corn on the cob ($1.50) is mandatory – sweet and swimming in a pool of seasoned (read: spicy) butter. Pass on the subpar potato salad ($1.50) and coleslaw ($1.50) and go for the Hershey-Kiss-shaped hush puppies ($1.50) – the bite-sized fritters were gone before we even knew it.

    A bowl of gumbo ($3.95), we thought, would offer a proper pre-crawdad indulgence. Purporting to be based on a "spicy roux," the soup was disappointingly thin and lacked the dark reddish-brown hue that typifies the Cajun stew. The restaurant is run by a pleasant Vietnamese family who moved to Orlando from New Orleans, and I couldn't help but think that the soup's consistency was more like pho and less like gumbo. To its credit, the assemblage did include a heap of sausage, shrimp, chicken and okra.

    I would've liked to have seen a Vietnamese po'boy (aka a banh mi) as part of their sandwich offerings, but we were nonetheless pleased with the catfish po'boy ($5.95), even if the bread wasn't true crispy Louisiana-style French bread. (Note: If you're jonesing for a muffuletta, you won't find it here.) No surprise seeing basa ($7.95), a mild-flavored Vietnamese river fish, on the menu. It's given a cornmeal treatment here, then battered and fried, resulting in the desired texture combo – flaky flesh and crispy skin. As a bonus, we got three fillets instead of the advertised two. For dessert, we got none of the advertised three – cheesecake ($2.75), pecan pie ($2.75) or fried banana ($2.75) – as they were all out, so we opted to end with some wonderfully potent Cafe du Monde coffee ($1.75) though, admittedly, we missed the beignets. The cuppa joe stoked our inner chatterbox and we found ourselves settling in and comfortably yapping away in this small, fan-blown space. The eatery comprises all the elements of a coastal dive minus the coast, and like the aroma wafting from my companion's fingers, we interminably lingered.

    For the last 10 years, I have been conducting a secret experiment: When traveling to other cities, I seek out Vietnamese restaurants to compare with the ones in Orlando. Unwittingly, restaurants in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C., have been put to the test, and not one of those exalted cities had anything – be it summer rolls, pho or syrupy-sweet coffee – as good as the eateries back home. And now there's a new contender in the Vietnamese paradise on that wonderful stretch of Colonial Drive near Mills Avenue: Lac-Viêt.

    It was hard not to be a bit skeptical about Lac-Viêt, because I wasn't fond of Lemongrass Bistro, the last establishment to occupy the space that for years housed La Normandie. When we walked up to the door just after dusk and crossed under a welcoming gate with a cheerful entrance, I saw that the new occupants have more design sense than any of the previous ones.

    The dining room has been opened up and made brighter, and it smelled like fresh bamboo and steeping lemongrass. I breathed a sigh of relief. The whole room felt altogether more pleasant than it ever had in the past. With sleek wooden chairs, a traditional Vietnamese instrument motif and depictions of Vietnamese scenery adorning the walls, a sense of style has taken the place of what is usually referred to as "character."

    The food was the true test, and it passed with gold stars. We started with the old standby, garden rolls ($2.50), which were fresh and flavorful with plenty of sweet shrimp, basil and a sprinkling of fried shallot. The sweet potato shrimp cakes ($4) – a dish that was new to me – sounded alluring, so we tried those too. Starchy shreds of sweet potato mingled in a tasty batter and married well with fish sauce for dipping. Lotus salad ($9.95), a medley of tender white lotus shoots, fresh herbs and marinated pork with a garnish of fanned shrimp also was delicious. My favorite dish was the seasoned rare beef with tamarind juice ($8.95), served with crunchy shrimp chips and fresh cilantro. This creation was so moving that I am petitioning the city to start a Seasoned Rare Beef With Tamarind Juice Day.

    The pho ($6.95) was outstanding. The one I chose had eye of round, brisket and soft tendon in an exotic, hearty beef broth with tantalizing seasonings – delicate cinnamon, a spark of star anise, the gentle heat of ginger, refreshing mint – toned down and made almost creamy by a large helping of cool rice noodles. The special vermicelli ($9.95) came with a heaping amount of grilled pork, spring rolls, shrimp paste and grilled beef, all absolutely delicious.

    The meal was so exciting that we decided to go for dessert, something I rarely do at Vietnamese restaurants. Soon we were blissfully sipping our avocado fruit shake ($3) and pink jelly with coconut milk ($2.50), nodding agreeably at all the flavors we'd experienced. For days, I couldn't stop thinking about the vast menu and all I hadn't tried. So I went back two days later to test the seafood hot pot for two ($20.95) and the not-to-be-missed house specialty rice crepes ($7.95).

    Orlando is now even further ahead of the rest in my quest to find the city with the very best Vietnamese cuisine.

    If you've ever seen the movie "Tampopo," you're familiar with the delicate balance among flavors, textures and ingredients that makes up a good bowl of noodles. We don't have a traditional Japanese noodle shop in Orlando (excuse me a moment while I weep), but amid the crowd of Vietnam-ese eateries in town, we now have Phó 88, which calls itself a "noodle soup restaurant."

    The phone is answered as "Beef Noodle 88," so take that as a hint; the specialty is various cuts of meat in soup, from very rare eye round and brisket to tendon and tripe. Nothing is wasted here. The restaurant is enormous, and it is made even more so by the great expanses of mirrors lining the walls, reminiscent of an exercise studio. The servings are large enough that you might need a workout.

    The wrapper on the chopsticks proclaims in Vietnamese, "Enjoy your meal." I have yet to find out the significance of "88." I asked our waiter, who asked the owner and came back to say, "It's a lucky number ... isn't it?" The number 8 is considered lucky to Vietnamese, and there are a few (unrelated) Phó 88s around the country, but just as many Phó 89s, 75s, 79s and 777s. So, it's hard to say where luck lies.

    While "phó" usually refers to beef soup, it literally means "your own bowl," as it's a meal that's not meant to be shared. You might want to share, though.

    As with Japanese noodles, clarity of broth is a sign of good phó (pronounced "fuh," not "faux"). The masses of very thin rice noodles come submerged in clear, delicately seasoned broth, either beef- or chicken-based. The chicken broth is particularly good, lightly seasoned with ginger and scallion. It's a shame that the chicken meat (I ordered a combo of light and dark on two different occasions) was kind of tough. Soups come in three sizes ($3.95 to $5.95), and the extra-large could easily cradle your head.

    Not to say that you can't stuff your head with other dishes. Shrimp, pork and crabmeat (which unfortunately is "faux") can be combined with egg or rice noodles ($5.25 to $7.75). Items that appear on most Vietnamese menus, such as pork and spring rolls on rice vermicelli ($4.95), are here as well -- along with "exotics" like shrimp paste on sugar cane, beef stew and various fried rice dishes.

    I advise eating in rather than ordering to go. The noodles tend to become a unified lump if not submerged immediately, and the portions of meat are not as large in takeout.

    Noodle shops are the fast-food joints of the Far East, and with Phó 88 in town, why settle for a burger?

    There was nothing deliberate about Viet Garden's decision to offer a half Vietnamese, half Thai menu when it opened in 1994. It was merely a reflection of a kitchen team skilled in both cuisines. But as Thai food has taken off in popularity, Viet Garden has added even more Thai items and specials.

    The restaurant continues to do an equally good job with its Vietnamese and Thai creations. And the quietly understated atmosphere -- the tile floors are glossy and polished, and lacquered furniture is precisely arranged -- ensures the emphasis stays on the food.

    The restaurant continues to do an equally good job with its Vietnamese and Thai creations. And the quietly understated atmosphere -- the tile floors are glossy and polished, and lacquered furniture is precisely arranged -- ensures the emphasis stays on the food.

    We started off with nam sod ($5.95), a fantastic Thai appetizer that is much more delectable than it sounds. Ground chicken is jazzed up with ginger, scallions, chili and lime dressing, and it crunches with the texture of the whole peanuts. Served with a pot of peanut sauce, this appetizer was our favorite. Other items not to miss include the popular "pineapple fried rice" ($8.50), served in a scooped-out pineapple shell with chicken, shrimp, eggs and scallions.

    We started off with nam sod ($5.95), a fantastic Thai appetizer that is much more delectable than it sounds. Ground chicken is jazzed up with ginger, scallions, chili and lime dressing, and it crunches with the texture of the whole peanuts. Served with a pot of peanut sauce, this appetizer was our favorite. Other items not to miss include the popular "pineapple fried rice" ($8.50), served in a scooped-out pineapple shell with chicken, shrimp, eggs and scallions.

    Next we moved on to the "Viet combo appetizer" ($7.95), which featured a fabulous shrimp toast. Luscious shrimp paste was spread over toast points and broiled until sizzling. There also were crackling-crisp spring rolls, fresh garden rolls, beef tenders and fried wontons, all of which were appealing.

    Next we moved on to the "Viet combo appetizer" ($7.95), which featured a fabulous shrimp toast. Luscious shrimp paste was spread over toast points and broiled until sizzling. There also were crackling-crisp spring rolls, fresh garden rolls, beef tenders and fried wontons, all of which were appealing.

    We also liked fine rice vermicelli topped with grilled pork ($6.50). The bed of pure white rice noodles was properly sticky, and the pork strips were flawlessly tender. The dish was even better enjoyed with a sprinkling of crushed nuts, with each forkful dabbed into plummy hoisin sauce.

    We also liked fine rice vermicelli topped with grilled pork ($6.50). The bed of pure white rice noodles was properly sticky, and the pork strips were flawlessly tender. The dish was even better enjoyed with a sprinkling of crushed nuts, with each forkful dabbed into plummy hoisin sauce.

    Less exciting was the "flower connection" ($9.95), a surf-and-turf extravaganza presented in a blossom formed from fried wonton skins. There were shrimp, scallops, pork, chicken and stir-fried vegetables, but something was missing in the sauce, which was bland and flavorless.

    Less exciting was the "flower connection" ($9.95), a surf-and-turf extravaganza presented in a blossom formed from fried wonton skins. There were shrimp, scallops, pork, chicken and stir-fried vegetables, but something was missing in the sauce, which was bland and flavorless.

    The only lapse in service came at the end of the meal, when we were left waiting for the check for nearly 15 minutes after we had finished eating and only a few other customers lingered. We finally beckoned to our waiter, who was seated at an empty table across the room. He brought the check and just one box instead of the two requested for our leftovers.

    The only lapse in service came at the end of the meal, when we were left waiting for the check for nearly 15 minutes after we had finished eating and only a few other customers lingered. We finally beckoned to our waiter, who was seated at an empty table across the room. He brought the check and just one box instead of the two requested for our leftovers.

    Although service isn't always as sharp as it should be, you can count on Viet Garden for delicious food from the Far East, time and again.

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