Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Restaurant review: Green Mint moves from truck to table

Green Mint offers flavorful options in surprising surroundings.

Posted By on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 11:58 AM

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click to enlarge Green Mint's traditional banh mi. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Green Mint's traditional banh mi.

As you drive up U.S. 19 just south of Enterprise Road, there’s a huge shopping strip on your right, Cypress Point. I know it as the location of my local Fresh Market, where I often shop for esoteric ingredients. It’s an unusually shaped center, with a sweeping curve that embraces the huge parking lot much like the colonnade that wraps around St. Peter’s Square in Rome, so familiar from the recent pope/saint extravaganzas. Dead center, you’ll find the Green Mint Asian Grill. I never noticed it before, but then again, it’s not housed in a huge basilica. But I must say St. Peter’s came to mind as I looked down at my iPad and then realized I’d been here before.

Green Mint opened its storefront just last August, but its mom-and-pop proprietors have been hawking great Vietnamese treats from a food truck for 25 years in Tampa Bay after immigrating to the U.S. through California. So they’ve now retired from the food truck industry and settled into a spacious storefront.

The identical lunch and dinner menu is served all day long. There’s a printed “take out” glossy as well as a floor-to-ceiling blackboard that lists all the various food and drink options. You order and pay at the counter and your food is quickly delivered to your chosen table.
The fresh summer rolls (two per order) wrap transparent rice paper around crisp lettuce, soft vermicelli rice noodles, fresh cucumber, and your choice of shrimp, tofu or three grilled meats: beef, chicken, or pork. We choose shrimp, which is fresh and tasty, especially with the accompanying house peanut sauce.

Even better are the fried spring rolls; they’re smaller, but you get five rolls per order with sweet duck sauce — or three with the traditional Vietnamese pork-veggie mix and chili sauce for the same price as the summer rolls. They’re wonderfully crisp, and the sauce gives zing without being overpowering. Many of the sauces pack heat and are surprising to palates unused to south Asian zip. One of my dining companions is a Vietnamese food virgin who cowers before some of the more powerful dips, but loves this dish.

The famous banh mi sandwich from Hanoi comes on a crisp toasted Vietnamese baguette with cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikons for both crunch and tang, and the perfect balance between cilantro and jalapeños for maximum flavor without overwhelming the other ingredients. Green Mint’s homemade mayo is a silky base for your choice of tofu, the same grilled-meat trio from the summer rolls, or with GM’s special cold cuts and shredded chicken. I’m a sucker for pâté, so my favorite version is the traditional pork where ample slices of lush homemade pâté stick out above the bread and raise a smile with each delicious bite. It’s a sandwich to remember; GM’s passion for making a terrific banh mi shows.
click to enlarge Bun with grilled pork and shrimp. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Bun with grilled pork and shrimp.

Much Vietnamese food is light and refreshing. Bun, aka noodle salad, is the perfect delicate meal for lunch or dinner. The huge bowl of rice vermicelli is topped with plenty of bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumbers, pickled carrots, daikon, crushed peanuts and your choice of protein. Because it’s a mostly cold dish, the key is the sweet chili sauce on the side. Unfortunately, my Viet food newbie can’t handle the heat, so once the shrimp is gone, the Bun seems bland. And, indeed, it is. So keep this in mind before you order if you have a questionable heat tolerance.

A low-carb alternative is the DIY fresh lettuce wrap with your choice of meat. We choose crisp grilled pork which is balanced by scallions, carrots, mushrooms, and crushed peanuts. It’s accompanied by a house sweet soy sauce that also packs some heat.

If you’re unsure of your heat quotient, don’t forget the pho (pronounced “fuh”), the Asian version of Mom’s chicken noodle soup that put Vietnamese cuisine on the map. There’s chicken, beef, or the GM special with sliced beef, meatballs and brisket. The huge bowl of fragrant broth is full of rice vermicelli, fresh cilantro, scallions, and sliced onions. The beauty is that crunchy bean sprouts, a wedge of lime, sliced jalapeños and Thai basil are served on the side so you can tailor the dish to make your palate happy. In all cases, there are also squeeze bottles of sweet hoisin plum sauce and spicy sriracha to fine-tune all the fresh dishes.

The teas have many options in a dozen-plus flavors: iced, bubble/boba (smoothies with large sweet tapioca pearls), or slushies. We sample one of each kind, opting for mango, coconut and lychee. They’re true to their source, but lychee is an acquired taste; my neophyte is skeptical and, sadly, remains unconvinced. But at least new ground has been broken. I continue to urge gastronomic pluralism for all.

So the next time I head to Fresh Market for some crème fraîche or demi-glace, I may not think of St. Peter’s, but you can be sure a banh mi sandwich will be part of the trip.

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