Little Saigon

On my first real date with my wife back in August 2006, I took her to a Vietnamese restaurant (Lac Viet, which closed several years ago), followed by a gelato place in downtown Orlando (also long gone), and we ended the night at Tatame in Winter Park for boba tea (sadly gone as well, but now Manzano’s Deli and Tin & Taco are in its old location).  Since then, we have shared countless meals at Orlando’s many Vietnamese restaurants.

Our longest-standing favorite is Little Saigon (https://www.littlesaigonfl.com/), located on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Thornton Avenue, one block west of Mills Avenue, right in the Mills 50 District.  After getting vaccinated, Little Saigon was one of the first restaurants my wife and I returned to in April, finally dining out after strictly getting takeout for over a year.

My wife couldn’t decide between two old Little Saigon favorites after all our time away from restaurants during the pandemic, so I advised her to order both dishes so she could enjoy leftovers the next day.  (We are a fun couple who knows how to party because of life decisions like this.)  This was grilled beef over rice vermicelli ($9.95), a light, fresh favorite of hers.  The beef is served with incredibly thin, tender slices that were marinated in something that makes them sweet, salty, and absolutely delicious.  I know fish sauce is involved, and probably sugar.  The rice vermicelli beneath doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but it soaks up so much flavor from everything it touches.  This dish is topped with crushed peanuts and shredded lettuce and cilantro, adding a bit of crunch and coolness.  This is what she opted to take home to eat the following day, because the noodles and grilled beef microwave so well.

She also ordered her favorite beef noodle soup anywhere — phở tai ($9.95), a rich beef broth flavored with beef bones, onions, scallions, ginger, star anise, and other aromatics.  It comes with rice vermicelli noodles and thin slices of rare beef that cook in the hot broth.  You can see thin-sliced onions floating around, but I always fish those out and happily add them to my own bowl of phở, because she hates onions and I love them — one more reason we are so perfectly matched.  And this was the dish she enjoyed in the restaurant, while it was hot, fresh, and at its best.   

I was also craving phở, but I always go with phở dac biet ($9.95), the same beef broth and rice noodles served with thin-sliced rare beef as well as brisket, beef meatballs (much denser and chewier than Italian-style meatballs), chewy, tender tendon, and usually tripe.  This time I asked them to hold the tripe and give me extra tendon instead, and I’ve decided I like it much better that way. Any Vietnamese restaurant will serve phở with a plate of several fresh herbs and additional ingredients to add, so diners can customize their soup to their hearts’ content.  I always tear up fragrant fresh basil leaves and crunchy sliced jalapeño peppers (these are fresh; much spicier than the pickled kind from a jar, so don’t touch your eyes!), but I prefer to leave the crispy bean sprouts out of my phở.  If I get lime wedges, I’ll usually squeeze some lime into my phở and some more into my glass of water.  Then there are condiments: hoisin sauce, sriracha (overrated hot sauce), and sambal oelek (thicker, chunkier hot sauce).  I’ll usually add just a tiny spoonful of sambal too, but only after tasting the pure, unadulterated  broth first.  As you might have guessed, my wife prefers plain phở, just as it comes out of the kitchen… but with as many onions fished out as possible.

My wife also loves boba tea drinks, especially the ones that are served up like slushies, full of chewy tapioca balls called boba.  I like the drinks quite a bit myself, but I’m not into the boba itself.  This time I passed, but she got her favorite, taro boba tea ($4.25), which always comes in a purple color but tastes more like vanilla to me than anything else.  It was icy and creamy and velvety and refreshing, but since my wife is only five feet tall, she had to stand up just to take a sip from this tall straw and taller glass. 

More recently, a dear old friend of my wife’s brought us some Little Saigon takeout after we had just returned home from being away for a while.  She brought my wife her usual favorite, the grilled beef with rice vermicelli, as well an order of two summer rolls ($4.25) as an appetizer.  I totally forgot to take a photo when she ordered them on our last visit to the restaurant, but I got ’em this time!  These are thin, sticky rice paper wraps stuffed with chilled pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and herbs, and served with a thick, sweet peanut dipping sauce.  I must admit I’m not the biggest fan, but she just loves them.

This friend of my wife’s asked me what I wanted, and I decided to try something I love, but hadn’t ordered before at Little Saigon: a hot and spicy beef noodle soup ($9.95), also called bún bò huế.  At Pho 88, their version of bún bò huế includes pork as well as beef, but this was its own unique thing.  I appreciated that the thin slices of beef were fattier, with more marbling, than the usual thin slices of beef eye round in the standard phở , and I liked them much more as a result.  The rice noodles in the hot and spicy soup were definitely thicker than the typical rice vermicelli in phở, too.

Whenever you order phở to go, any good Vietnamese restaurant serves the broth in a separate container from everything else, so the rice noodles don’t turn to mush and the rare beef doesn’t overcook before you get it home.  Little Saigon packaged the deep red, oily bún bò huế broth separately from everything else, which is the ideal way to do it for takeout orders.

Here is the assembled bún bò huế, with plenty of cilantro and green onions.  It came with the typical phở accompaniments, so I squirted in some lime juice but didn’t feel the need to add anything else.  The soup is definitely spicy, but if you’re worried about the heat, I can promise you it looks much spicier than it actually is.  You may need to blow your nose while eating it (I sure did), but your lips and tongue shouldn’t burn afterwards, and you shouldn’t have any other distress or discomfort from it.

It might sound a little weird to order hot soup during so much of the year in steamy hot central Florida, but I find phở and bún bò huế very refreshing, even in the peak of the summer months.  Keep in mind that Vietnam has a humid, tropical climate too!  But I think I appreciate phở the most during our weeks of winter when the temperature in Orlando drops below 70 degrees, and sometimes down into the 40s for a few precious days.  It doesn’t matter, though — Vietnamese food is delicious any time of year, and Little Saigon is one of our favorite restaurants to order it.  And my wife says the summer rolls here are the best ones anywhere.