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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.

Picking up sushi for dinner on the way home from work is a fairly daunting proposition in that it usually means stopping by the Japanese deli case near the produce section at your local grocery store. The convenience is nice, but the sushi – while tolerable and far better than a delivery pizza – leaves something to be desired (especially the weird, plastic-looking tuna). If you're one of the approximately 80 billion people who uses East Colonial Drive for the daily trip home, you've no doubt noticed the poster-sized photo of the scrumptious-looking "Sky Tray" of sushi that graces the window of Bikkuri Sushi and wondered: Wouldn't that be great for dinner?

Although there is limited seating inside Bikkuri, the restaurant's specialty is takeout, as the menu is almost completely composed of takeout trays. From the Rose Party (32 pieces, all rolls; $13.29) to the African Violet (80 pieces of rolls, 10 nigiri sushi; $46.59), a variety of sizes and combinations is available and all of them are, surprisingly enough, priced more reasonably than the stuff in the grocery store.

The 72 pieces (and $50 price tag) of the Sky Tray might be a little much for a typical after-work meal, but I had friends coming over and figured it would be a good opportunity to sample Bikkuri's skills. Still, none of us expected Bikkuri's fare to be as fresh as it was. Some of the nigiri wasn't cut to perfection (a tiny piece of bone showed up in some yellowtail), but the fish was excellent and well-chosen, and the rolls were beautiful and bursting with flavor.

It would have been unimaginable a few years ago to think about picking up sushi as easily as picking up a pizza, much less FRESH sushi, but Bikkuri's tray combinations make it easy, and their excellent sushi makes it a pleasure.

Given the seemingly unambiguous moniker of Boston Bakery & Café, one would expect to find display cases filled with mouthwatering cream pies, cupcakes, whoopee pies, molasses-sweetened brown bread and, perhaps, the odd patron or two downing frothy glass mugs of Irish coffee. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. Instead, this simple café on the fringes of Little Saigon is primarily a Vietnamese restaurant, and lies smack dab in the middle of what I like to call the CoFer District (Colonial Drive and Ferncreek Avenue).

Further digging revealed that the name isn't so cryptic after all. Owners Tony and Yolanda Vu ran a restaurant in the Boston suburb of Quincy before swapping nor'easters for sweltering zephyrs a year ago. The couple shares kitchen and cooking responsibilities, but it's Yolanda who handles the baking duties.

A large cake display case sits at the core of the square space, but upon entering, neither 'bakery� nor 'café� are descriptors that immediately leap to mind. In fact, the baby blue'colored walls and children milling about makes it feel more like a nursery or after-school daycare. Even so, I did glimpse a few baguettes resting on sheet pans behind the counter, undoubtedly prepared for one of their many banh mi, or Vietnamese sandwiches (ask for a side of their homemade butter if ordering one).

But the purpose of this assignment was to spotlight confections, not comestibles, and with Halloween looming, focusing on a place where those of us over the age of 13 could go and satisfy our sweet tooths seemed imperative. So, off to the display case I went in search of treats but, I have to say, I felt slightly tricked after perusing the offerings. Most were cake rolls, birthday cakes and Napoleons that weren't offered by the slice; and there was nary a tart, pie, turnover or éclair in sight.

Evidently, they were all sold out of personal-sized cakes, but a small, oval-shaped 'cheese cakeâ?� ($2) stared back at me, which I promptly ordered and devoured in four bites. Now this isn't your Cheesecake Factory brand of cheesecake; it's more like pound cake with a layer of soft cream cheese in the center, and rather delicious.

Pre-packaged cakes made by a friend of the owner are also available, but the plastic wrapping is a total buzz kill.

Still craving cake and cake-like products, I got myself a chocolate cake roll ($8), which resembled a log made of sponge. Light and airy with a hint of coffee flavoring, the roll embodied a minimalist ideal in both look and taste. I took it home and enjoyed it deeply with a dollop of double Devonshire cream. Simple, unaffected, not too sweet, but far from orgasmic.

The menu board beckoned to 'experience the slush magicâ?� so, on this particular visit, my accompanying beverage of choice was a perfectly tangy and refreshing passionfruit slushie ($3.50). Other flavors, ranging from mint-chocolate to watermelon, are also offered, each with the option to add chewy 'pearls,â?� or tapioca balls, to the mix for an additional 40 cents. Those rubbery orbs are often found dotting the bottoms of plastic cups filled with milk tea, thus the terms 'bubble tea,â?� 'pearl teaâ?� and 'boba tea.â?� The drink, hugely popular in cities with large Asian populations, was as trendy as Starbucks' lattes among high school and college students when I was growing up in Toronto, and it seems to have a burgeoning following here in Orlando. I enjoyed the sugary Thai bubble tea ($3) until the tapioca balls got stuck in my straw. Neophytes, take heed: When you're offered a straw from the decanter, be sure to choose one wide enough to suck up the balls. Uhh, yeah.

If sipping bubble tea through a broad, colorful straw seems too emasculating an act, might I suggest the red bean tea ($3.50), sans tapioca. The proteined potable (the sole nod to their Beantown roots) features red bean (or azuki) powder, producing a smoky slurp akin to liquid barbecue.

Vietnamese coffee ($2), meticulously prepared in a press pot by blending a chicory-flavored French roast with Vietnamese arabica and robusta grounds, will definitely turn your crank. Served in a small glass, the coffee is at once ridiculously strong, syrupy-sweet and glacially creamy thanks to the addition of sweetened condensed milk. Amusing side note: The brand of the chicory-flavored coffee, Café Demonte, is a blatant rip-off of Café du Monde and even comes in a can that looks remarkably similar to the one the venerable Big Easy coffeehouse produces.

Admittedly, I was a little disappointed in this bakery, especially when, on a return visit, the display case was, once again, devoid of individually portioned baked goods. Pissa! If sweet treats are what you crave this Halloween, avoid being tricked and take your chances at the Publix across the street.

Colonialtown’s Chuan Lu Garden employs plenty of fiery stimulants in their authentic, real-deal Sichuan fare. Must-try dishes: cumin lamb, laced with aromatic and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and Lanzhou-style beef soup with hand-pulled noodles.

More than 30 organic loose-leaf teas are offered at this socially conscious teahouse that's become a gathering ground for nonconformists, neo-cons and everyone in between. A predominantly vegan menu of wraps, salads and an outstandingly hearty chili will satisfy even the most ravenous of carnivores. Start with hummus with hemp seeds, and finish with the fluffernutter sandwich - a sweet proposition.


Teaser: More than 30 organic loose-leaf teas are offered at this socially conscious teahouse that's become a gathering ground for nonconformists, neo-cons and everyone in between. A predominantly vegan menu of wraps, salads and an outstandingly hearty chili will satisfy even the most ravenous of carnivores. Start with hummus with hemp seeds, and finish with the fluffernutter sandwich ' a sweet proposition.

The sheer variety and low price point of the assorted dishes makes this hub of pan-Asian small plates a popular draw, but it's better for snacking and drinking beer with a group than sitting down to a trad meal. The menu attempts to replicate the feel of a Singaporean street-food market with an array of tiny, tasty Chinese, Malay, Viet and Indian dishes. The place packs ’em in, so call ahead or risk waiting.

Bao, those steamed sugar dough buns stuffed with all matter of crispy, fatty, meaty and crunchy fillings, are the new draw, but so is the low price. While the buns themselves aren’t fresh (they’re bought frozen, sorry), the meats they cradle, be it kimchi fried chicken, Korean short rib, or braised pork belly, satiate. Vegan and vegetarian options are also offered (try the bao filled with a sweet potato croquette). Tater tots are the sole side accompaniment, though, if you have room for dessert, fried bao with sweet fillings are available.

"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.

'Be veg. Go green. Save the planet.â?� These words appear everywhere you turn at the Loving Hut, the tiny temple of veganism that recently materialized on Colonial Drive. The smiling Hut-dwellers have transformed the dark, cave-like spot that formerly housed Tay Do into a serene space lined with mirrors and flat-screen TVs and filled to overflowing with bright white modern tables and chairs.

Every visit ' even for takeout ' begins with a complimentary bowl of delicate clear miso soup. While sipping, contemplate the frustratingly uninformative menu and try to decide between Jolly Rice and Saintly Stir-fry. Fear not; it's all delicious, especially to those already versed in the chewy delights of TVP. Noble Rice, a generous timbale topped with black sesame seeds, is served with a toothsome curry-sauced cutlet. Seven Sea Delight is a pile of seaweed-spiked ravioli-like items, crisp outside and tender inside. Heavenly Salad has the perfect sweet-sour tang for summer refreshing; pho and bun hue are serviceable interpretations. Western favorites are convincing as well: The club sandwich is a tall, messy 'mayoâ?�-and-pickle'laden treat.

About those flat-screens â?¦ they're tuned at all times to 'Supreme Master TV,â?� the international outreach channel of a certain Supreme Master Ching Hai. Her picture is everywhere, too, on books, bumper stickers and fridge magnets. It's a little eerie, but the message is so benevolent that it's hard to be too weirded out by it: vegetarianism, animal rights, saving the polar ice caps ' wait, they also espouse eliminating alcohol. Now that is dangerous thinking.

' Jessica Bryce Young

Mamak brings a semblance of Malaysia’s food-stall culture to Mills 50 with plenty of pan-Asian noodle soups, wok-fired delicacies and small plates. From beef bulgogi and seasoned cod in black bean sauce to char kway teow and kari mee, the dishes here are exemplary and thoroughly gratifying. Get a plate of stir-fried green beans to nosh on throughout your meal. To end, sweet ice kacang is a cold comfort.
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