Updated 8 months ago
“You want fish balls with that?” the woman in the lime green uniform asked politely, a strange offer in a Florida shopping center but wholly appropriate when the specialty is pho.
The fish ball in question is a compacted sphere of fish flesh and seasonings, inoffensive in taste and spongy in texture. It’s a common alternative to the meatballs typically added to the Vietnamese-style soup that’s popping up on menus everywhere these days.
In addition to finding pho at Pholicious stalls in three Florida malls, you’ll find an even hipper serving at Viet-Nomz in Winter Park, complete with retro metal chairs and exposed brick walls. Like Pholicious and most traditional Vietnamese restaurants, Viet-Nomz serves the rice noodle salad bun and the spicy Viet banh mi subs with a big dash of cheeky wit.
Contemporary Vietnamese cooking is just one of many new Asian flavors available as the Year of the Rooster dawns in Florida. Asian has been part of modern cooking since California fused Mexican and Italian together with Japanese simplicity, beauty and freshness.
Today, chefs of all ethnicities mine Japanese, Thai and Chinese cuisines for robust earthy dishes that have their origins in food markets, street food, izakaya pubs and taverns.
They need little renovation to fit modern trends. One-pot bowls and eat-out-of-hand snacks make for forkless eating and fit today’s ambiguous all-hours dining on small plates. They can be hot and spicy or warm and comfy, and pair well with tea and beer.
Noodles are everywhere — in Thai pad see ew, Malay mee goreng, Filipino pancit, Chinese chow fun and lo mein and Japanese ramen, as well as Vietnamese pho. And in anything goes American noodle bars.
Unlike Italian pasta, Asian noodles are served in broths of rich stock and exotic flavors. Kapow Noodle Bar exploded in Boca Raton’s upscale Mizner Park with fiery flavor and flashy style, with ramen, udon and lo mein and non-noodle favorites from Korean short-ribs, dumplings and bacon/ jalapeno rangoons.
The noodles of choice are ramen, which have escaped their 99-cent instant meal confinement to become a favorite of Millennials.
More rustic than sushi bars are places like Ichicoro, which opened in Tampa.
Cooks in black bandanas sporting tats shout “irasshaimase!” — welcome! — as each customer enters.
The diner picks among beef, chicken, pork or miso broth, fillings and add-ons. Sides include a bao bun with Cuban sandwich makings.
Pensacola ramen lovers flock to Nom Sushi Izakaya, which makes its own noodles for its chicken, pork and vegetable broths. In hipster Wynwood, The Gang Miami is already as well known for its seafood ramen as its wild paint job. Noble Rice in Tampa serves four classic ramen dishes, each in different stocks, as well as very traditional sushi.
A newer item on Florida menus is a Hawaiian favorite called poke, a salad of cubed tuna or other raw fish, a hybrid of sushi and ceviche.
Once an appetizer at Roy’s and a few other places, poke is now the signature mainstay at poke-centric restaurants like Ono Poke Shop and Poke 305 in Miami and soon Poke Rose in Tampa.
At Poke 305, for about $15 you can mix a bowlful of fish with kale, Peruvian corn, cilantro, sweet potato chips and kimchee — or pack them all in a burrito! At Ono Poke, the Miami touch is poke in a bagel bowl. At Poke Rose, set to open early this year in downtown Tampa, poke will get the gourmet twists of chef Jason Cline from St. Peterburg’s Birchwood hotel.
Dim Sum / Bao
Also enjoying new life is the ancient and beloved steamed bun of Chinese dim sum. It can be in traditional or transformed into a soft puffy bun in a u-shape filled with all manner of stuffing, whether pork belly or soft-shell crab at Bao Bar and Asian Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale. Orlando’s Baoery has waggishly loaded bao buns eight ways, from fried tofu to Philly cheese and hotdog and sriracha kraut (the Bao Wow).
New flavors are exotic and clever, but what about the traditional Chinese so many Floridians hunger for? Never fear. There’s also more authentic Cantonese and Szechuan.
The Yummy House empire of Chinese-born John Zhao and Tommy Tang added an Orlando branch and a new larger Gainesville location, making six Yummies from Ocala to Sarasota. Menus are long on crispy fried salt and pepper seafood, clay-pot-braised eggplant and barbecued duck and pork. Most serve dim sum at lunch daily.
Classic Chinese with top-dollar glam is a Miami staple at the likes of Hakkasan in the Fontainebleau, Mr. Chow and the elegant Asian fusion at the Mandarin Oriental’s Azul and Gaston Acurio’s La Mar.
Brickell is now the place to go for elegant Peking duck, Hong Kong lobster and gold leaf sweet potatoes in the three-story Komodo Chinese Restaurant or glittering Da Tang Unique a block away.
Those who want it all should consider the Setai’s all-Asian restaurant, Jaya. It serves Wagyu beef, Thai noodles, Japanese and Chinese dumplings, Szechuan scallops, snapper bao with curry leaf, soba noodles and a large helping of tandoor chicken and Indian trimmings.