4 out of 5 stars
5415 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa. Appetizers: $3-$6; entrees: $9-$15; desserts: $3; beer/wine/sake: $3-$9.50.
It’s an exciting time to be alive, and I’m not talking witch hunts, climate change or the anticipation of Disney’s new Star Wars land. It’s about great food in unlikely places.
There’s no surprise if a $40+ entree served on white linen dazzles; it goes with the territory. But I’ve been amazed by the quality that’s possible at affordable “build-a-bowl” fast-casual restaurants. The key, of course, is attention to detail and sourcing fresh, quality ingredients.
Still, when I bring my crew to an unassuming space like Ballast Point’s Asian Kitchen, I don’t really expect much. It’s a bare-bones space with metal chairs and a few similar stools at the bar. One wall sports a happy mural with a chopsticks-wielding pirate. As is typical, you order at the bar, pay, and then get a number to place upon your table while you await a smiling face to deliver your food.
AK offers four different fresh, house-made drinks, samples of which greet you on trays with diminutive cups as you enter and walk to the counter. There’s Thai iced tea, orange pineapple ginger, unsweetened mint green tea, and basil lemonade. After the de rigueur tasting of them all, I opt for the lemonade. It’s fresh, not overly sweet, and light on the basil — a good choice as far as I’m concerned. And, it’s refillable by the attentive and friendly staff behind the counter who positively kill us with kindness. The others in my crew land on Stella Artois and All Day IPA from the chalkboard beer menu. There’s also a quintet of organic, gluten-free, vegan Social sparkling sake in 10 oz. cans with only 88 calories. The spectrum of flavors is quite surprising: coconut-almond, elderflower-apple, strawberry rose, pink grapefruit-ginger, and hibiscus-cucumber. They’re quite a bargain — at only $3 and 4 percent ABV, you can try them all.
When our starters arrive, the real surprise is that there’s no paper, cardboard or simple cheap white dinnerware. Instead, most everything is served in heavy, glazed ceramic bowls and plates with black bottoms and brick-colored tops. It’s a handsome way to showcase what turns out to be surprising food. The edamame is standard issue, but the potstickers display lovely caramelization and the fat, fresh spring roll with chicken is full of fresh herbs and lettuce for crunch and perfectly enhanced by the accompanying peanut sauce.
We’re off to a good start, but it’s our cleverly named main courses that really soar. Every dish on the menu is a play on words representing greatest hits from across Asia. There’s Hopeless Ramentic and Pho Sho (although the correct Vietnamese pronunciation is “fuh”), it’s a clever multiculti mash-up of Saigon and American Southern vernacular.
The Vietnamese Stand Bahn Mi sandwich is on a crisp and crackling toasted baguette. I choose pork belly over the other proteins; it’s lush and juicy. The pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber and cilantro that garnish the meat are just right and the thinly sliced jalapeño provides a perfect touch of heat. It’s a winner.
Moving north on the map, the Pad Thai-Tanic loads plump shrimp with bean sprouts, onion, egg, and fresh lime wedges, on top of delicious rice noodles with a sprinkling of peanuts. As the steam rises from the dish, my taster contentedly sighs and says, “this is as good as I could get at a full-service restaurant.” Indeed, that’s true of all the entrees.
Chinese Lo Meintenance piles chunks of house-smoked beef brisket on top of toothsome noodles with onions, scallions, bean sprouts, and tender green bok choy all tied together with a sweet soy sauce. The serving is so large that I’m able to enjoy the leftovers just as much for tomorrow’s lunch.
The poke bowl offers a choice of krab salad, shrimp, salmon or tuna. We choose a combo of the last two. The dish that arrives is a work of art. Beautiful cubes of pristine fish are presented on a bowl of sushi rice flavored with the crunchy, salty, nutty, earthy, briny furikake Japanese condiment. The surrounding garnishes create a visual feast with dark green, shimmering seaweed salad, pickled cucumber, edamame, pickled red onion, the intertwined orange and white of grated daikon plus carrot and a most artistic avocado fan in the center. It’s hard to believe this is coming from a fast-casual kitchen with staff in ball caps and T-shirts.
Plus, if you want to tweak any of your dishes, there’s a condiment shelf with commercial hoisin and sriracha alongside giant squeeze bottles with house-made sauces including kung pao, sesame soy, sweet teriyaki, savory gochujang, zesty coconut curry, and spicy mayo. I can’t resist tasting them all. Each one has something to offer; they’re all balanced and possess a lovely mouthfeel. Depending on your personal inclinations, you’re sure to find something to your liking. For the most part, though, our dishes are well-seasoned as served.
The one drawback is that there are no desserts except prepackaged Asian snacks, most prominently Meiji YanYan cracker sticks with dip. Choose from chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry creme. We’re so full and happy with the fresh food that we opt out. Plus, Asian cultures are not really as focused on sweet finishes for Western palates. But the car is abuzz as we zoom toward the bay about the tasty food and attentive service. It was a good night, pho sho.
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