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Tang’s dynasty
Former Viet Garden owner starts anew in Oviedo

Aiming higher than the spate of casual Vietnamese eateries lining Colonial Drive, Oviedo’s Saigon Flavors certainly has the sultry mood, decorative panache and intimate space that sets it apart from its downtown kin. Deep reds and cool blues with wall cutouts housing assorted objets d’art, including four beautifully painted renderings of Vietnam’s four regions, lend to a mood of refined tranquility. So why mar the serenity by situating a hostess stand in the dining room? It’s not so much the stand’s placement as how it serves as a congregating ground for owner Charlie Tang and his staff, who use it as a forum for idle chatter. Buckling to one’s boredom is commonplace in the service biz, but for a restaurant bent on raising the bar, such behavior takes a bit of shimmer off the surface. Both our meals here began with a conscious effort to turn a deaf ear to the chitchat and to nourish our senses with our eyes and mouths.

And with corpulent gòi cuôn, we were able to do just that. Summer rolls ($3.50) of the grilled pork, lemon-chicken and meatball varieties restored some of the luster, but it was the grape leaves stuffed with marinated char-grilled beef that really shone. A slight charring of the leaves themselves only enhanced the flavors, but a dip in the homemade sweet-and-sour sauce wasn’t just unnecessary, it vitiated the essence. If you must, a drop or two of the red pepper chutney provides the proper zing.

Poring over the 50-odd “chef’s specials” and entrees, we were steered toward the canh chua cá ($12.95), a fish soup made sweet by pineapples and sour by the addition of tamarind. Our obliging server proceeded to spoon some rice into a bowl, on top of which he ladled a piping-hot broth teeming with tilapia fillets, bean sprouts, okra, tomatoes and peppermint. The surprisingly harmonious and texturally symphonic soup would be even better the next day, we were told, and sure enough, the balanced but bolder broth proved gratifying the following night.

One of my favorite places in town to enjoy a good cheap bowl of pho is Viet Garden, and the fact that Tang owned that restaurant back in the ’90s had me salivating at the thought of sampling the liquid meal here. While good, the pho ($7.50) with beef eye-round, flank and meatballs seemed deficient in fragrant star anise, and the lack of depth and complexity in the broth had us compensating by adding more Thai basil. On the noodle front, we opted for another of the chef’s specialties – an artfully presented, albeit safe, plate of crispy combo noodles ($11.95) crowned with plenty of shrimp, beef, chicken and a host of vegetables from bok choy to water chestnuts stir-fried in an unremarkable brown garlic sauce.

If potent Viet coffee with condensed milk ($3.50) doesn’t sweeten your tooth, deliciously mild and runny flan ($2.95), as well as the fried banana flambé ($4.95) served with sesame- specked coconut ice cream, certainly will.

While you won’t find the profligate aggregation of dishes at Saigon Flavors that you would in the humble eateries on Colonial Drive, you won’t find the third-world prices either. But if Viet Garden was any indication, Tang will make this work. His restaurant may not even be the size of Ho Chi Minh’s hothouse, but Tang’s ambitions may be just as big.
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