When my wife and I tore out and replaced our kitchen a couple years back, there was one upside to all the chaos: With no stove, no sink, no cabinets, we were forced (forced, I tell you) to eat takeout every night for a week or two. For us, that meant nonstop Vietnamese food — all ordered from downtown's Pho Cali. I can't say endless noodles made up for having to wash our dishes in the bathtub, but they certainly eased the pain.
That's a long and complicated way of saying we love Vietnamese food. Pressed to choose, I'd take Vietnamese over Thai or Chinese any day. Phở? Love it. Bánh mì? Love it. Slow-dripped coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk? Love it.
So, needless to say, when Lê Ánh's Vietnamese Restaurant opened up this summer in a former Pizza Hut not far from our home, I was thrilled. Pho Cali remains my favorite, but on a rainy weekday evening when all you want to do is kill your hunger and relax on the couch, not having to drive downtown is a wonderful convenience.
On a recent Friday night, my wife, mom and I loaded up on Vietnamese goods and chowed down. We started with basics: fried egg rolls and spring rolls. The former ($3.50) were pro forma — fried cylinders delivering a dose of grease and crunch — but the latter were exceptional. The spring rolls come stuffed with shredded pork skin ($3.50), which provides a chewy core and a dusty mouth feel that contrasts with the fresh mint and sticky rice. Dunked in Lê Ánh's simple but elegant sweet-vinegar dipping sauce, which provides a needed hit of moisture, the roll sings.
I've never tried bánh hỏi before. Translated on the menu as "thin rice stick bunches," the dishes are thread-thin nests of white noodles laid underneath a number of different proteins — shrimp ($9.95) is our selection. Dotted with sriracha and hoisin, the dish is great, the noodles just sticky enough to hang together and the shrimp cooked to just the right point, when the skin is taut and elastic but the insides melt in your mouth.
Then comes the bún, or "rice vermicelli" according to the menu. The dish combines spaghetti-sized noodles with sprouts, cucumbers, pickled veggies, fresh herbs and more with the protein of your choice. Thin strips of grilled beef ($8.50) are sizzled to perfection, sticky and caramelized. And while the meat is well done, it's not even close to tough — difficult to pull off.
I've never had cơm tấm ("broken rice") before, but I'm happy to give it a shot. The rice is indeed busted up. Per online sources, it's a cheaper product, left over from rice production, that has been embraced as its own delight. The texture is noticeably different. Much starchier for one, and you can't taste individual grains like you can with whole rice. Served with a grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin and meatloaf ($9.25), the broken rice is a delight. That meatloaf is intriguing, a jellied pink mass about the size of a deck of cards, which tastes a lot better than that description makes it sound.
The best sign dinner was great? When my son decides to upend a carton of bún onto the terrazzo, my mom scoops it up and onto her plate. "The floor is O.K.," she says, before diving in.
Lê Ánh's Vietnamese Restaurant
2901 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature on Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.