The Vietnamese comfort food at Ha Long Bistro is deliciously predictable—but with a few surprises.
Vietnam has influenced—and has been influenced by—the food cultures of the world for centuries. The French, a power in Vietnam since the 1800s, brought baguettes, paté and coffee to that sprawling country. Cambodians and the Chinese introduced curries and noodles (and chopsticks); the Portuguese left hot peppers. In turn, the swamps of Vietnam provided Italy with water buffalos in the 12th century where, unlike the Vietnamese, Italians knew a thing or two about making cheese and created the delicacy known as mozzarella di bufala.
Since Vietnamese immigrants started arriving in force in Orlando four decades ago, pho, rice noodles and banh mi have affected our local dining habits as much as the Palestinian presence in Jacksonville or the Floribbean hybrids of Miami. Vietnamese food is just a part of our lives. While many restaurants have come and gone along Colonial Drive, several Vietnamese eateries have demonstrated staying power: Anh Hong has been here since 1999, Viet Garden started in 1994, and the popular Little Saigon opened its doors in ’92. The owners of Vinh’s, a fixture since 1990, moved to Primrose Drive four years ago to open Pho Vinh, and last year the new owners of the old Vinh’s changed the name to Ha Long Bistro.
The name refers to a city in the north of Vietnam (it means “descending dragon”) that was impacted heavily by the American war, and you can hear that influence in the restaurant. The background music kept us constantly amused, with Vietnamese-rendered versions of Santana and spaghetti Western theme songs. But what caught my attention was the menu. It looked like the standard, seemingly endless fare we’ve become familiar with, but there were some treasures hidden in the catalog.
Have no fear, noodle bowls, soups and summer rolls abound, as you’d expect, and a favorite go-to, number 54 on the menu, is grilled pork and spring rolls (bun cha gio thit nu’o’ng; $8.50). Mounds of rice vermicelli, heaps of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro and hot peppers, shreds of dark pork and crunchy slices of fried spring rolls —it’s all there, and we love it. By the way, this dish is #47 at Viet Garden and #76 at Anh Hong. Makes one wish for standardized numbers.
A dish that is harder to find is cháo, the Vietnamese version of Chinese congee, a soupy rice porridge cooked in broth and seasonings that is often a meal three times a day. At Ha Long, it is thinner than oatmeal, mixed with chicken and garlic (cháo ga, $7.50), beef (cháo bo, $7.95) or assorted seafood, scallions and peppers (cháo hai san, $9.50).
A lovely touch of northern Vietnamese cooking, the roasted quail starter (chim cut roti, $7.95) came with a small bowl of salt, black pepper and lime juice for dipping. “Just use a little,” our friendly waitress advised. An Asian take on a classic French dish, the tiny quartered bird comes in a deep ginger and fish sauce glaze and is an ideal appetizer.
Central Vietnam is represented by bun bo Hue ($7.95), a rich beef broth soup flavored with lemongrass and hot chili oil, served with slices of beef shank. Curry stir fries with beef and chicken show a Thai influence, and ca chien sot ca ($12.95) uses the relatively modern addition to the Vietnamese diet of tomato sauce served over fish.
“It’s been ages since a new restaurant opened on this road,” I said when we left. “I can’t remember how long.” And then I laughed, because I will remember Ha Long.
Ha Long Bistro
1231 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando