From our first step into downtown Tampa's Bamboozle Café, it's clear they're eager to please. A fresh-faced order-taker cruises the line, explaining the concept and guiding folks through the process. A little helping hand is necessary, despite the simple menu of stripped-down Vietnamese standards listed on the board above the counter. There seems to be a paralyzing number of choices, from what veggies to put in the spring rolls to what veggies to put on the noodle salad to what veggies to put on the sandwiches. Alright, maybe it's not that many choices after all. Still feels like it.
Once we place our order with the line-stalker, Bamboozle turns into a Vietnamese Subway, those numerous veggie choices arrayed behind glass, plopped by a culinary engineer onto whatever dish you choose. They dip rice paper into warm water and slap it on a cutting board or scoop strands of vermicelli into a bowl or layer ingredients onto a split loaf of crusty french bread, all topped with protein in the form of grilled chicken, beef or pork, or steamed shrimp, or slivers of golden tofu. Then comes indecision.
I get four picks, and there are about a dozen possibilities. Maybe mint, jalapeno, mango and radish? Oh, wait, there are pickled daikon and carrot shreds, and basil seems a given, and maybe tomato would work with the beef? Do onions add or detract on these things? Gah.
I always lapse into a quivering mass when given too many options, confronted by the idea that I might pick poorly or miss a particularly effective combination of ingredients. Easy enough to solve -- I just make sure to order a half dozen rolls, a sandwich, a couple of noodle bowls and a salad, exhausting enough possibilities that I leave without fear of disappointment.
Except, of course, for disappointment that's not my fault. Bamboozle has an excellent concept: fresh, healthy ingredients combined in an homage to classic Vietnamese fare. But once you get past the veggie choices and noodles and enter the realm of cooked food, disappointment is fairly common.
Like pho ($6.95-$7.95), that popular staple of Vietnamese restaurants in the States. At Bamboozle, the broth is thin, lacking the heady fragrance of star anise and cardamom that marks pho as a world-class soup. The sliced beef and chicken are fine, as are the chopped cukes, basil, bean sprouts and noodles, of course, but that broth not only manages to bypass the whole sour-salty-spicy-sweet flavor continuum that makes pho worthwhile, it bypasses flavor entirely.
With little cooking involved, spring rolls ($2.25-$2.75) are the best option, each one a portable salad chock full of happy health. And despite my own proclivity toward indecision, it's difficult to make a serious mistake no matter what you choose to stuff into the little buggers since they all start with a solid base of noodles and shredded lettuce. Just make sure to add a little herb -- basil or mint or both -- and you'll be fine.
You do have to be careful with your protein selection, though. Steamed shrimp is unseasoned and completely innocuous, but the chicken is salted past the point of no return. Beef is a better choice, and pork works well. Vegetarians should stick to the salad ingredients and skip the spongy, watery tofu. You can't need protein that badly.
Beef and pork -- especially on the days Bamboozle has the luscious barbecued variety doused in smoky-sweet sauce -- also make for fine sandwiches ($5.95-$7.95), the toasted baguette a perfect counterpart to packed veggies and meat. For a rare hit of fat on this disturbingly healthy menu, try loading a sandwich with tiny fried egg rolls stuffed with puréed chicken and scallions; the crunch of fry, crust and veg works surprisingly well.
Pick your protein correctly, and the noodle salad bowls ($6.95-$8.95) also eke out a favorable rating, but cooking causes problems here as well. The traditional rice wine vinaigrette does little more than dampen the salad, adding almost no zing to the mix. You're better off with an intense dressing loaded with roasted shallots, although that suffers from the same over-seasoning as the chicken.
The most flavorful options at Bamboozle are ones that aren't always on the menu, like the barbecued pork I mentioned before. There is also a satisfying chicken curry special ($7.95) chock full of tender potatoes and carrots that has great curry bite, even if the sauce is thin as water, as well as an oddly sweet beef stew ($7.95) that still manages to pack some punch.
While in line on one visit, I spot a friend and stop to ask if he'd eaten at Bamboozle before. He tells me he has and proceeds to outline many of the problems I talk about here. But there he is, back for more.
In spite of the problems, Bamboozle obviously still has something to offer Tampa's downtown daytime dining scene. There's little to be had that's as fresh, healthy and quick as the vaguely Vietnamese options this lunch counter churns out daily. And though it still has kinks to work out in the behind-the-scenes prep, I suspect that the concept will carry it through these early rocky days. That and a kick-ass name.
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