Pho-finders keepers 

Bamboozle Tea Lounge’s French-Vietnamese menu pleases everyone from students to food critics.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, CL’s crackerjack interns took charge of this week’s issue. I was lucky enough to “meet the interns” over a tasting in the Channel District to compare their Gen Y thoughts with my Baby Boomer perspective. Three millennial gastronauts — Rebecca Bailey, Meaghan Habuda, and Daniel Figueroa — became food critics for the week and shared their thoughts on the experience via email.

After parking along a chain link fence and trudging across some squishy ground, we met up at Bamboozle Tea Lounge (BTL) and perused their hip chalkboard menu. The four-pronged bill of fare highlights Bamboozle rolls wrapped in translucent rice paper, baby noodle salads, baby pho boats, and bahn mi, that delicious Vietnamese sandwich that betrays its French roots.

Rebecca notes that BTL “matches the essence of Channelside. It’s a small, trendy place that has a couch and a coffee table stuffed with board games. They even have giant Jenga (made from 2x4s), which I would never expect to find in a restaurant or café because giant Jenga is a serious game.”

I am new to Jenga, but not to the bahn mi sandwich. BTL offers a choice of protein, including tofu, as well as the traditional version with pate. The welcome crunch of daikon, and the freshness of cucumber, jalapeno and cilantro complete the flavor package that makes you understand why this is a perennial favorite.

Daniel opts for a baby pho boat with prawns and writes, “Bamboozle’s food, like that expected of Vietnamese cuisine, can be very light and refreshing in its use of raw vegetables. Even the pho, a hot soup, is packed with carrots, rice noodles, and bean sprouts, which provide a light, refreshing flavor. The menu lists it as a baby pho boat, and that’s what it is, a miniature version served in a boat. The dish is a bit simpler than your traditional pho that is often served in large bowls and packed with even more ingredients. The broth is a key component to a good pho and there again, BTL succeeded. It, too, is light and herbaceous with notes of cinnamon and ginger melding with light spice and a hint of peanut. It’s the kind of dish that won’t fill you up and never lets you down.”

Rebecca orders a strawberry smoothie and we all anticipate a typical fruity slush beverage. “This smoothie was not what I was expecting (it was more like a shake), but it was very good! It was like Destiny’s Child with Beyoncé shoved into the background. The strawberries are obviously there, but not the star of the show.”

We also order some tasty and surprising sugarcane juice, but the flavored milk drinks with huge tapioca balls, or boba, continue the surprises. “The lavender boba is tan and the taro boba is purple. We would expect it to be the other way around, but nope,” Rebecca chuckles.

Chicken is our choice for the baby noodle salad. The spicy moist meat sits on top of four veggie quadrants; julienned cucumber, tangy pickled daikon and carrots, bean sprouts and green leaf lettuce. There’s a touch of mint, plus some crushed peanuts and roasted shallots. And hiding underneath it all, soft vermicelli noodles with a zesty chili dressing. We almost missed them, until Rebecca started poking around. We were so intent on tasting the chicken, we missed the obvious. Take time to mix the veggies and the noodles together for the complete sensory experience.

Meaghan, the lone vegetarian in the bunch, happily notes that BTL even provides some vegan options. “As a vegetarian who has only feasted upon the occasional fried spring roll that accompanies Chinese takeout, BTL’s veggie roll is a delectable surprise, lovingly wrapped in fresh rice paper. Coupled with savory soy sauce vinaigrette, the roll unleashes a Vietnamese flavor army on your taste buds. The crunchiness of the cucumbers and carrots, as well as the sweetness of the daikon, is met by a refreshing lettuce and cilantro medley. Embedded near the bottom, the unexpected hints of cilantro impress me the most.”

Daniel knows his ethnic food. As a transplant from the Bronx, he grew up with an entire world full of gastronomic choices; perhaps that’s why we ended up discussing esoteric bourbon and the proper Dutch pronunciation of Gouda. But he understands that there’s also plenty of gastronomic diversity in the numerous ethnic cuisines offered to Tampa Bay diners and reflected in BTL’s offerings.

“Some ethnic foods can be intimidating as you find them in areas densely populated by members of that ethnic group. Where Bamboozle really succeeds is in making Vietnamese food more accessible as it is located in a thriving and diverse urban neighborhood. There you’ll see young families with children who might not even be aware they’re eating what can be such an exotic food or young professionals grabbing a healthy meal after a work out, as well as a food critic discussing the finer points of architecture with a group of hungry interns all easily immersing themselves in another culture. Most importantly, the food delivers.”

NEXT WEEK: Main Street Dunedin

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