[image-1]Instead of overwrought fine-dining cuisine that might match Buddha Lounge's scene -- or at least the imagined scene that comes from a first impression -- the menu is full of updated pan-Asian standards at prices that never top $10. In fact, the food is so inexpensive, it might make more sense to order takeout from Buddha than call your neighborhood Chinese delivery joint. It won't cost you more than a buck or two more for Buddha's better, healthier takes on the classics.
Most of the menu is devoted to simple stir-fries, like the restaurant's ginger chicken. Chunks of breast meat, coated in crisp breading, are tossed with tender broccoli, crisp carrot coins, big slices of mushroom and a sauce that has the typical clinging slickness of take-out with a surprisingly fresh bite of ginger. Japanese curry is almost identical, this time with hunks of beef, wedges of perfectly cooked potato and a rich sauce tinged by curry powder. Both are almost indistinguishable from what you'll find at the usual Chinese restaurant, but the little differences have a big impact.
You can order nutty, fluffy brown rice instead of white. The beef is exceptionally tender and cooked just past medium rare, while the chicken is fried crisp on the outside but left moist on the inside. The sauces are lighter and more flavorful, and the veggies are very fresh. There's not a lot of innovation or surprise to be found in the food, but the value is immense.
Buddha Lounge does a less credible job when it delves into soups and noodles. Pad Thai is tasty, but the subtle flavors seem neutered when compared to serious Thai restaurants. The classic lo mein and fried mei fun are better than the seriously low-quality versions found at most other places, but the restaurant's Japanese udon is a bit tepid. Order it in broth and you get a bowl of exceedingly bland soup filled with thick noodles gone gummy from overcooking.
Rice bowls are easily the best items on Buddha Lounge's menu, perhaps because they're more a return to the stir-fry formula. Sweet chicken thighs glazed with soy, more tender beef with a crisp crust, or crunchy fried shrimp top the rice, each paired with enough veggies to make this a healthy-enough meal for folks who want less oil and sauce than comes with the stir-fries.
There's sushi as well, almost a necessity at any restaurant with Buddha in the name. Stick with the rolls, which are competently assembled and creative enough to please a crowd, because the fish isn't quite as good as it needs to be to make for successful sashimi or nigiri. The best of both of Buddha's worlds can be had in the lunchtime bento box special loaded with half a California roll, fried or steamed rice, edamame or ginger salad and a choice of entrees for just $10.
Although the menu and pricing may seem incongruous considering the decor, it's a clever conceit that takes advantage of the current Ybor vibe. During the day, the area is packed with locals who work in the numerous office buildings that most outsiders forget about, looking for an affordable lunch. At night, Ybor is an entertainment destination where many people cycle from restaurant to club to bar and back again. Those folks expect a nice look but have a lot of demands on their cash.
And Buddha Lounge satisfies all of them by serving an under-represented cuisine at prices that are low enough to fit everyone's budget. Smart.