Chef BT Nguyen prepares a meal at Tampa's Vietnamese Restaurant BT.
Florida restaurateurs delve deeper into Asia
New Asian menus dive deeper into the continent.
Bored with pad Thai or think sushi is not so cool? You're in luck because Florida's Asian menu is changing. Contemporary restaurants are reaching deep into authentic flavors from Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and beyond and adding the accents of urban chefs and decorators.
Whatever their roots, these chefs embrace all the modern trends: Sliders, Brussels sprouts, whole-wall blackboard menus, bar food and most of all tapas, small plates and handheld nibblings.
Sushi from Zuma in Miami
Across the U. S. , the fiery, earthy flavors and sour accents of Korean barbecue, noodles and kimchi are hot, especially small bites of ssam, the original lettuce wrap. Korea is a jumping off point for the wild fusion funk of Richard Hales' Sakaya Kitchen and Dim Ssam a Go Go food trucks in Miami.
Hales makes bulgogi with Angus beef, calls his Korean fried chicken KFC and makes pork sliders with kimchi slaw. Then it's off to Vietnam for bao buns and banh mi sandwiches, France for sous vide duck and herbs, the Philippines for lumpia rolls and All-American nostalgia for tater tots and his wife's cookies.
Blackbrick in Miami, also called Midtown Chinese and Dim Sum, is the rare menu of familiar Chinese made over by Sakaya Kitchen chef Richard Hales. He adds food truck wit and locavore concern for provenance. Thus curried lamb dumplings, house-made breads and noodles, old school congee, jelly fish salad with Swank Farms lettuce, Gong Pao rabbit and General Tso's gator.
Thai cooking gets a frisky updating to suit Las Olas and shows a rare Indonesian accent at Dapur in Fort Lauderdale. Restaurateur Edi Mulyanto has classic Thai and goes beyond to Kobe beef sliders, crispy Brussels sprouts, bang bang scallops. The menu borrows widely across Asia and even Latin America (for yucca fries and skirt steak). Most intriguing are Indonesian spices and dishes like martabak rolls folded around beef and egg. Dapur also caters to vegans and anti-gluten diners.
Roast pork with housemade sweet chili sauce and quick pickle on bao buns at Sakaya Kitchen in Miami Vietnam
Floridians love the fresh tastes of noodle salads and soups (bun and pho) and banh mi sandwiches on French bread, refreshing in the subtropics. Now we're hot for the newest import, bao, fluffy buns folded over barbecue meats and vegetables.
New in Fort Lauderdale, in the former Wild East space on Las Olas, Bao Bar & Asian Kitchen serves various Asian favorites, but the namesake bao buns, especially with pork belly, are a big hit and featured once a week as an all-you-can eat special.
Tampa's Anise Global Gastrobar calls bao "stinky bunz," filling them with pork belly, of course, curried chicken, fried zucchini and beerbattered shrimp. Somehow they fit in a menu with duck tacos and lobster mac 'n' cheese. The city's elegant Vietnamese pioneer, Restaurant BT, continues to explore authentic flavors and new twists with banh mis that include a DLT (duck, lettuce and tomato) with local cucumber salad and a mini burger of Vietnamese beef tartare. Dinners range from Vietnamese bouillabaisse (with pineapple and okra) to organic coq au vin.
From Japan, the new and very old trend is izakaya, hot small dishes long popular in Japanese bars and pubs and an alternative to sushi. Izakaya items are cooked in the kitchen or on a robata grill at the bar in front of the customers.
The first grills have arrived in Florida. The most glamorous may be in the Orlando restaurant row branch of Dragonfly. The robata grill is chef Hideaki "Ray" Leung's pride. It uses Japanese bicho-tan charcoal to cook skewers of pike, Scottish salmon, Wagyu beef and shrimp and grill corn, rack of lamb and baconwrapped enoki — along with crispy pork ears and Brussels sprouts chips for bar snacks.
Robatayaki is a big attraction at Miami's flashy Zuma, and the broader range of izakaya snacks are offered at the new Su-Shin Izakaya in Coral Gables. Owners have the Lan Pan-Asian and Yuga restaurants but warn that Su-Shin is their most authentic restaurant and not for all diners. If you want enoki mushrooms in butter, fried squid and a host of daily chalkboard specials, dive in.
Funk 'n' Fusion
New combinations are more explosive than sushi and Thai on the same menu. One busy laboratory is Orlando's Asian community, buzzing with both traditional and experimental chefs.
Hawkers Asian Street Fare mined Malaysia, China and Japan for noodles, salads and skewers of Singapore street vendors and then mixed them with wings, tacos, fries and curried mashed potatoes and a lengthy beer list. They've now taken the concept to Jacksonville's Riverside.
Pom Moongauklang goes further. Born in Thailand, raised in the U. S. and trained in New York City's hippest restaurants, she opened Pom Pom's Teahouse & Sandwicheria downtown. A dozen loose-leaf teas, pressed sandwiches from curried chicken and Asian pork plus potato napoleons for breakfast are a small sample of her combinations.
At Tako Cheena, she fills tacos with Thai peanut chicken or panko-crusted cod, makes burritos of Korean bulgogi and Indian butter chicken plus banh mi hot dogs. Could be more on the blackboard. Maybe kimchi cheese fries.