I consider it my duty to try every off-the-wall restaurant I can find the more obscure, the better. My long-standing favorite is Trang Viet Cuisine on Fowler Avenue. Most commuting students probably drive past it every day on without knowing what they’re missing.
Trang’s is a restaurant in the true sense of the word. The term restaurant originated in Paris hundreds of years ago, and it was the name of a dish, not a place. For those who did not want to eat the heavy, greasy peasant foods at the inns and bars, or for those who had weak digestive systems, a few small cafes offered a brothy soup called restaurant–a concoction meant to “restore” ailing bodies.
A good approximation of the restaurants of the old days is Vietnamese Pho Soup. The broth is the key in this dish, and is made by simmering beef bones and seasoning it for a minimum of eight hours. When one orders Pho at Trang, you are brought a large bowl of the broth with rice noodles, kind of like ramen without any grease and minimal salt. Several paper-thin slices of raw beef are put into the piping-hot broth. By the time the bowl reaches your table, the beef is cooked. You are also brought a generous plate of bean sprouts, chilies, lime and fresh cinnamon basil to add at your discretion. The basil is essential, the sprouts add a great crunchy texture and the chilies and lime give the broth a nice kick. Careful with the Vietnamese chilies though, they are very potent and can overwhelm the delicate flavor of the broth.
For the less adventurous, the beef stew is wonderful and the fried rice is fluffy with barely a trace of oil. The grilled meat skewers over rice noodles are an especially satisfying meal. The four seasons’ platter highlights Trang’s fabulous rolls: spring, summer, autumn and winter. They are all masterpieces of contrasting tastes, textures and sauces. In fact, you can’t go wrong with any of the appetizers, whether they are steamed buns, fried calamari or stuffed chicken wings.
The quality of Trang’s food can be traced back to several sources. Trang, the owner, grows his own herbs and some vegetables on his farm in Lutz. Somehow, American cuisine missed out on herbs almost entirely, which is a shame. The fresh taste they impart cannot be beaten. The flavors are authentic and subtle. You taste the food and nothing more no powdered stocks or heavy spicing to cover up inferior ingredients. The restaurant uses little or no oil. Unlike Chinese cookery, which bases entire dishes and sauces on the liberal use of oil, Vietnamese food often uses broths, infusions and salty fish sauce to moisten its dishes. Few menu items are fried at all. In addition, Trang has a great variety of vegetarian and vegan menu items. Many of the dishes use marinated and grilled tofu in place of meat. Unfortunately for you meatless people, dishes like Pho Soup cannot be replicated without meat, and they do not appear on the veggie menu.
The good news does not stop here, though. Trang offers great lunch specials before 3pm soup, appetizer and entrÃ©e for a mere $5.45, just turn to the back of the menu.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the restaurant is the odyssey of the owner, Trang Viet. He grew up under French colonial domination, fled communist incursions, joined the South Vietnamese army at the height of the war, attended school in the United States as the war ended and finally enabled his family to join him here in Tampa. Keep in mind that Trang gave up a lucrative career in computer programming just to open a restaurant with his family. How lucky we are.
To visit Trang Viet Cusine at 1524 E. Fowler Avenue (813) 979-1464
Contact Andrew Huse at email@example.com. Check out Feed Your Head again on Feb. 19.