U.S. 19 has a range of international fare, especially in the Pinellas Park area. But there’s a nondescript strip mall along near 60th Ave. N., one you’ve likely driven past on multiple occasions, that houses an entirely different world. This little plaza is a one-stop shop for all things Vietnamese.
Thuy Café. The place to go for banh mi and fresh fruit boba tea, served in an Ikea-style interior where the Beyonce: I Am World Tour DVD always seems to be playing on television. The banh mi is the much-vaunted Vietnamese sandwich, served on a toasty baguette with carrots, daikon, cilantro and jalapeños, and smeared with a combination of butter and mayonnaise. The classic version is Thuy’s specialty, served with a series of cold cuts and a smattering of liver pate, but the grilled pork or lemongrass chicken versions are good as well. Vegetarian friends will swoon over the “tofoagie” banh mi. The fresh fruit boba tea is certainly unlike any powder-mixed crap you’ve had at the mall. Try the mango, pineapple or avocado. Yes, avocado isn’t just for guacamole, not when it’s blended into a beverage that’s creamy, cool, and sweet. Boba tea comes with black tapioca pearls and little gelatin chunks called “jellies” that are slurped through a wide straw. Before puncturing the individually sealed top, tip the tea upside down and shake it to stir in the tapioca and jellies. 5944 34th St. N #22, St. Petersburg, 727-521-6406, thuycafe.com.
Mekong. The dive bar of the Vietnamese scene. There are other Viet cuisine spots nearby that look better, but the food here is top-notch and cheap. Perhaps the dingy décor weeds out the customer base so that only the brave survive. The menu may intimidate — it’s not in English. But if you are nice to your servers, they will gladly guide you to your desired cuisine destination. (If you aren’t nice to your servers, don’t blame us. This place is old school when it comes to service, so be respectful or face the consequences.) There is a lot to choose from, but you should try the pho first — a big bowl of steaming broth piled high with rice noodles and your choice of meat or tofu. Alongside the pho, you’ll get a tray of condiments: Thai basil, cilantro, limes, jalapenos, and sauces to add for extra flavor. (Add them.) Order one of the traditional beverages, like pickled lemonade or the very bitter Vietnamese coffee. The tastes are different, but that’s the point; get out of the comfort zone and see what you like. 5944 34th St. N #20, St. Petersburg, 727-521-3378.
Cho-Lon Oriental Market. A small Vietnamese grocery store located next door to Mekong where you can pick up ingredients to make your own pho on the cheap. Homemade tofu is 60 cents a square. Freeze-dried shitakes cost about $3 a bag, and there’s an entire aisle of dried noodles for around $2 a bag and a fair amount of exotic produce on the cheap (try dragon fruit or lychees). If you don’t already know about the Durian fruit, be forewarned: it’s very popular in Asian culture, but a stretch for the Western palate. Unless, of course, you like fermented onions covered in old garbage. 5944 34th St. N #17, St. Petersburg, 727-527-7511.
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