A Rooster and the Till outpost could have arrived in town and it would have taken second fiddle to the new Vietnamese place, Pho Tan, that just opened over in no man’s land USA, aka the Combee settlement in Southeast Lakeland, Florida. You have to understand my plight, my yearning, and my overall displeasure pho my local food scene be-pho you understand why a legitimate Vietnamese restaurant means so much more to me.
Here’s a little back story to prove my love.
I preface this by apologizing pho bashing the only other Vietnamese place in town, but it helps tell the story. When the other “Viet” restaurant in town opened about two or three years ago, how excited I was! The cuisine of Vietnam has gradually caused to become one of my favorites. From bánh mi to com dia, and all the delicious bánh bao. At long last I wouldn’t have to drive over an hour to sample these delicious dishes. Oh how wrong I was. The food was as sad as a fatherless child, yet disreputable sources continue to bestow either 4 ½ stars or a 95% approval rating, which means people are still giving them their business.
It’s my hypothesis that the general population in town doesn’t know what authentic Vietnamese food tastes like if this place does it pho them. To be fair, I’ve never been anywhere close to the Mekong River, so my comparative knowledge spans from the ethnic crossroads found in neighborhoods I’m very familiar with in Manhattan, Orlando and Tampa. All of which are offer much greater quality than this terrible incarnation we had.
About two months ago, I drove into an old dingy parking lot by accident after needing to make a U-turn to get out of Combee as fast as humanly possible, and noticed the sign pho Pho Tan. At first I thought I was mistakenly seeing a sign pho a salon, the letters spelling ‘Phoenix Tan’, having long fallen off. I imagined a glowing bird ascending through the flames, sporting a pair of Wayfarers pho retinal protection. It couldn’t possibly be a restaurant could it? Fast forward to this past Sunday, my phone starts blowing up around 11:30 am with close friends who know my hatred pho the Viet restaurant that shall not be named, telling me that I have to check out Pho Tan! All day I was bombarded with pho-tos of pho, bun, bánh mi and rice paper rolls. So I went, that very night with ZERO expectations.
My wife wants to hate Pho Tan. She doesn’t think it’s possible to have even a handful of decent places to eat in town. I don’t disagree with her based on what’s around, yet my hope never dies. It’s a general theme between us lately; the impression of pre-conceived hatred. I just want it to be good. Good enough to where I can say “ Hey, I don’t want to drive out-of-town pho dinner tonight, you want Pho Tan?” That’s all I ask. Sadly, that’s how bad it is here sometimes. The bargaining chip pho me were the gushing reviews from my friends. I think pho the most part, I surround myself with people who have great taste and true discernment. If they like it, I should too.
We ordered a plate of steamed chicken dumplings; a rare starter at most Vietnamese places. They came with an out of character dipping broth. Pho the most part we got them pho the kid; he likes stabbing them and making dim sum lollipops. It was mildly pleasing, yet I considered it somewhat a precarious start as they were highly fragile. I like the flavor but wasn’t ready to give up on Anh Hong. The brothy sauce was so noteworthy, we held on to it pho the duration of our meal, no matter how many times our sweet waitress tried to pull it from the booth.
We loved the Com dia, with grilled beef & shrimp, a perfect fried egg and the best stuffed shrimp paste in fried bean curd I’ve honestly ever had. It was light and crispy with a mousseline of herbaceous shrimp paste stuffed inside. I can’t imagine finding a better version anywhere else. It was a shame that my wife’s lemongrass chicken and spring roll bun, didn’t hit a ground rule double with her. She didn’t like the cold noodles intertwined with the hot chicken. Whatever they do to the lemongrass chicken is impressive, yet the dish itself was let biggest let down. They also need to give us a holy trinity of herbs (cilantro, Thai basil and mint), as only a few are co-mingled, with only sprouts and nước chấm on the side. If they could tweak that slightly, I think it would be passable in her eyes.
We also ordered a grilled chicken bánh mi, not realizing it would come with the same lemongrass marinade. I may have opted pho the grilled pork had I known, as I was suffering from lemongrass overload. Nevertheless, there were wonderful flavors on the inside from the jalapeño, cilantro, mint, pickled vegetables and lemony mayo. However they used a large segment from a whole baguette which caused an uneven bread to filling ratio, unfortunately favoring the bread. This could easily be fixed by buying mini baguettes over whole loaves. Get them at Publix! That’s how Saigon Deli does it!
I knew Lakeland had a small Vietnamese community somewhere out there, as a large group showed up as we were just finishing our meal. By the time we left, the place was packed full of happy eaters. I wonder how those who migrated from Vietnam feel about a place that undoubtedly reminds them of home? Imagine moving to the opposite side of the world without access to your favorite Cuban joint, and then one day, Arco Iris opens down the street. I would cry. We need to support this place so it sticks around.
Comparing Pho Tan to the other place is like comparing Tartine Bakery to Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s really a great spot pho Lakeland, with better ingredients and way more authenticity than any other spot in the area. Just look in the kitchen. You’ll likely see a sweet looking old man painstakingly stirring a 20 gallon pot of pho with what appears to be a canoe oar. While It doesn’t beat my favorite places in every category, as you know, I wasn’t really expecting it to. Even the best Vietnamese I’ve eaten in other parts of the country have their particular strengths and weaknesses. Pho the price and overall experience, I think I speak pho everyone who desires good Vietnamese food; “Welcome to Lakeland, please stay!”