Viet Garden an entertaining adventure

Extensive menu may prove challenging for some

With its abundance of aromatic herbs, hearty soups and pleasant seasonings, Vietnamese cuisine can be an entertaining adventure. But, like many adventures, it’s helpful to have a guide.

Viet Garden is not the first such restaurant in its current location on Florida Boulevard, and it offers an array of more than 100 items. For the Vietnamese community that likely serves as its primary clientele, the menu is probably as familiar as family photographs. For the rest of us, it can be a little daunting.

We mostly enjoyed our two recent visits. With plenty of windows, yellow walls and paintings of Vietnamese landscapes framed in blue, the restaurant has a nice atmosphere and a prompt, pleasant staff. What it could probably use is more explanatory language on the menu to guide those of us who’d like to dip our culinary toes into this unfamiliar water.

But, intrepid folks that we are, we plunged right in — with a little guidance.

Recruiting a friend who grew up in the former South Vietnam, we began a dinner visit with item No. 11, ngo sen tom thit ($12.99). Described in English only as “pickled lotus root,” this is much more than that. It is like a salad of sliced vegetables such as carrot, cucumber and lotus root along with shrimp, pork and ground peanuts and served with large rice chips. The vinegar and sugar marinade made this a refreshing appetizer that can be eaten by itself with chopsticks or fork, or with the chips.

On a lunch foray, we also sampled the banh xeo (No. 7, $7.99), identified on the menu as “Vietnamese moon cake with house sauce.” This translation might confuse diners, since Vietnamese moon cake is typically a tasty sweet pastry. The appetizer in question is more accurately described as a Vietnamese half-moon crepe, a standard dish in many Vietnamese eateries, often as an entrée. As an appetizer, the dish can readily serve a table of four, and is a rice flour crepe folded to seal in a filling that includes shrimp and bean sprouts. It is crisp and golden brown on the outside, and Viet Garden’s version certainly meets that ideal. It is served with a slightly sweetened fish sauce.

The two spring rolls ($3.75) with shrimp and pork were colorful but a bit bland.

Our lunch entrées included No. 76, bun thit nuong tom cha gio ($8.99), which consists of grilled pork, shrimp and egg roll on rice vermicelli, along with house greens. It’s a lot of food, an Asian buffet in a bowl. The pork was grilled just right — still tender and slightly sweet, suggesting that the meat had been soaked in a typical Vietnamese marinade that included sesame oil and sugar.

We also sampled No. 63, bo bun hue ($7.99), a spicy beef noodle soup with sliced beef and pork, rice vermicelli and an abundance of greens, including herbs and bamboo shoots on the side. This soup is a meal in itself, with a hearty stock.

Using our friend’s guidance, my wife and I scored two dinner winners. Com dac biet, No. 62 ($11.99), included grilled pork, grilled chicken and shredded pork skin served over steamed jasmine rice. The chicken was a bit dry, but the meat covered by the pork skin was as juicy, tender and flavorful as it is possible for pork to be, and the portion more than justified the to-go box we received at meal’s end.

We weren’t sure what to expect with No. 99, hen suk banh da ($14.99). The baby clam and ground pork and onion came as a mound mixed with mint and, as best we could tell, other chopped greens topped with ground peanuts and served with the fish sauce, to which we added red pepper paste to create a tangy complement to what already had a little zip from the mint and what we suspect was a vinegar-based marinade. The dish comes with the rice chips, which seemed the best way to eat, spooning on a few drops of sauce for each mouthful.

Our Vietnamese friend ordered No. 89, banh hoi bak biet ($12.99), which featured shrimp paste, grilled chicken, grilled pork and egg roll over noodles and vegetables. She demonstrated that this is best eaten by wrapping the ingredients in the lettuce leaves and adding the sauce and pepper paste. She was disappointed that the meats were overcooked and dry.

Her husband had No. 65, bun mang vit ($8.99), a duck and bamboo shoot soup with vermicelli. OK, nothing special.

Overall, Viet Garden provides plenty of food for what you pay. It should put some effort into making the menu more user-friendly to those unfamiliar with this cuisine.