La V's Pho-nomenal Vietnamese fusion

Good food fortune in the ’Burg.

click to enlarge La V's Dita von Teese lights. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
La V's Dita von Teese lights.

After a delicious evening tasting my way around the world of La V’s Vietnamese Fusion cuisine, my normally skeptical brain is on the verge of giving some credence to numerology. You see, owner/chef Thuy Le (twee lay) — who also owns Thuy Café on 34th St. N. — says she was originally looking to open a Tampa restaurant, but knew the vacancy at 441 Central Avenue was “meant to be … the numbers of the address (441) adds up to nine, which is a lucky number in the Vietnamese culture.” You’ll also notice she’s continued the “4” theme in the menu pricing.

Luck or not, La V’s handsome, modern Central Avenue restaurant is worth a visit. The sleek black and gray interior with its dark wood floors and bright red accents invites you in, and the feather-draped light fixtures over the bar tease like a Dita von Teese fan dance. Hovering over the black leather sofa and the rows of sleek black silver-accented tables and chairs are light fixture “columns” made of crystal beads. And a series of huge B&W photos of Asian women in artsy poses lines the length of the room.

I really enjoy the look and taste of the La V spring rolls (goi cuon thit nuong) with transparent rice paper wrappers that barely contain the bright green lettuce shooting out the top like a fountain. And the grilled pork, herb and veggie filling goes perfectly with the peanut-hoisin sauce that packs heat on the finish.

The crispy shrimp crush (tom dau hu ky) is a thin golden brown fried bean curd skin wrapped around a tasty shrimp paste with tangy fish sauce, a vinegar like fermentation of fish and sea salt that is a favorite condiment. The combination is satisfying even as the shrimp flavors take a back seat to the crunch of the wrapper.

La V’s entrees are divided into soup (pho), sandwiches (bahn mi), vermicelli (bun) and rice (com dia) with numerous options for every taste.

The La V noodle soup (pho dac biet) is a meal in itself. The huge bowl of rich, almost sweet, beef broth is filled with thin rice noodles, slivers of steak, meatballs, and soft tendon topped with onions and cilantro. Fresh basil, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeño, and lime served on the side are added as you see fit. Final tweaks come from a small yin/yang bowl of hoisin and fiery Sriracha so that you are in complete control of your flavor destiny.

The lemongrass chicken (bun ga xa ot) tops a bowl of steaming vermicelli rice noodles with juicy strips of lemongrass-tinged chicken breast, seasoned with fresh herbs and accompanied by bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, pickle and daikon and a sweet fish sauce. The flavors are balanced and make your taste buds come alive. Which is also true of the grilled pork with steamed rice (com thit nuong), a platter of crispy pork complemented by fresh lettuce, cucumber and, in a nod toward fusion, ginger kimchi.

One of La V’s specialties is the hoi an pan noodle (mi xao hoi an). It’s built on a wide pan-fried noodle that is heartier than the soft vermicelli. It’s served with plenty of extra crisp succulent shrimp, perfectly sautéed crinkle-cut carrots, fresh herbs, a touch of spice, and topped with a bright, colorful thin slice of hard-boiled egg.

And, of course, we mustn’t forget that delicious culinary love child that reminds us of the historical link between Vietnam and France, the bahn mi sandwich. La V’s specialty version (bahn mi dac biet) is memorable. The crunchy baguette is wonderfully crisp, with crumbs flying in every bite. The mix of pork cold cuts and pâté is topped with crunchy pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, fresh jalapeno, a touch of cilantro and La V's amazing secret smear, which appears to be a butter-mayo hybrid. It’s a yummy bargain.

The Boba Tea smoothies are a mix-and-match joy ride. Choose from two sizes, then pick one of 60, yes 60 flavors that range from fresh avocado to green bean to durian, that stinkiest of fruits. Then add your choice of tapioca pearls, or lychee, coffee, green tea or other colorful fruit jellies to suck up through a super fat straw. There are also more typically Western, sweet dessert flavors for less adventuresome palates.

The menu skips some perennial Vietnamese favorites such as sizzling crepes (bahn xeo) or (lau) hot pot cooking, but the range of food is broad and the flavors are exciting. What’s not so exciting is the service. The wait staff is certainly friendly and aims to please, but the service has neither rhyme nor reason. The atmosphere is relaxed, but it takes too long to get menus and for our orders to be taken. Empty water glasses should just be refilled silently (that’s attentive service) and there’s no reason to ask about removing plates that aren’t empty—unless you notice that the eating has stopped. There appears to be a team service approach with no one in charge. The food is so good, you could ignore the unfocused staff, but a meal this tasty deserves trained hospitality to match.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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