Very seldom does a restaurant allow me to leave feeling refreshed and ready to seize the day. Too often, I sluggishly walk out the door while holding my stomach in despair and wanting nothing more than a food induced comatose kind of nap. Vietnamese cuisine is quite the contrary for my mind, body and spirit. It picks me up when I am feeling blue and cures me when I am feeling ill. The fragrant herbs, spicy sauces and steamy broths must have Southeast Asian healing powers. I have traveled Tampa near and far, tasting many rolls, numerous pho’s, several Banh Mi’s and countless rice noodle bowls. I feel that, as a Vietnamese fare fanatic, I must set the record straight. There is one Vietnamese joint that ranks supreme. For their unique spin on the delectable and insanely fresh goods, downtown Tampa’s Bambooze Café dominates all.
Bamboozle, located on North Tampa Street, is literally night and day with their insanely crowded lunch hour rush and their relaxing dinner downtime. Be prepared. When one walks into the popular eatery at 12PM, they are simply asking for a grueling, anxiety provoking, theme park kind of line full of ravenous patrons. Once the counter is finally reached, there can be no stalling on menu selections. Peering through a clear glass window and into a fully loaded kitchen with 20- something ingredients, it is time for you to name your own Pho, fresh roll combo, Banh Mi sandwich, Noodle salad and more. Choosing from 5 Spiced BBQ pork, Lemongrass beef, grilled chicken, prawns, tofu and seared tuna, there is a meat choice for every carnivore. With meatless options and tons of flavorful fruits, veggies and herbs to choose from, a vegetarian can’t go wrong here either.
Almost every time I’ve dined at Bamboozle during the intense, high-energy lunch, I’ve stuck with my never fails, “go-to.” The fresh rolls are unlike any I’ve ever had at other Vietnamese establishments. Completely customizable, guests can create their own signature concoction by making a meat selection and then choosing four additional ingredients to have liberally stuffed into the rice paper rolls. With romaine and rice noodles as “freebies,” these culinary jewels can get rather enormous. Cilantro, mint, jackfruit, mango, daikon, jalapenos and carrots are only a few of the available goodies. Because I like to invent a new roll with each visit, I have tried all of the meats. Most are fresh, adequately seasoned and cooked. The tuna, however, is dreadful. Inappropriately mushy and a bit fishy, I will never make that mistake again. The prawn, too, is a slight disgrace. The “prawn” is hardly a prawn. A medium-sized bland shrimp, it will also never be ordered again. I find that the extremely tasty and succulent 5-spice BBQ pork trumps all and goes especially well with cilantro, mint, mango and jalapenos. Tender and tasty with marinades, the chicken and beef aren’t too shabby either. Dipped into peanut sauce and Sriracha available from their “help yourself” sauce bar, the fresh rolls are undeniably the stars at this downtown ethnic gem.
Bamboozle also knows Pho. With beef, chicken, “prawn” or tofu swimming in a “boat” along with noodles, bean sprouts, jalapenos, cilantro, red onion, lime and a squirt of Hoisin and Sriracha, it is a soup large enough to fill a hungry man for days. Fortunately, these Vietnamese food geniuses also cater to the smaller appetite and to those just wanting just a “taste” with their sample sized pho bowls. Aromatic, steamy and a sure winner for a sore throat and stuffy nose soother, Pho is most definitely a soup for the soul. Because the beef version is most bold in flavor, it’d be my strong recommendation. Yet, Bamboozle prepares each variety flawlessly with plenty of meat, noodles and veggies in every batch.
|Photo courtesy Bamboozle|
It is at night, when Bamboozle unveils a much more elaborate menu. A menu where Banh Mi sliders, curries, various stir-fry dishes, Vietnamese crepes (Banh Xeo) and several Bamboozle created fresh rolls all exist, all equally enticing. Just recently, my beau gave into the very tempting, Banh Xeo. A perfectly crispy and humongous crepe stuffed with shredded chicken, bean sprouts, onions and daikon with a sweet and spicy chili sauce to its side, it was a Vietnamese victor in every respect. With a great contrast of flavors and textures, Chris couldn’t help but devour every last remnant on his plate. He was in food paradise….and with just one bite, I understood why.
|Photo courtesy Bamboozle|
Surprisingly enough, Bamboozle whips up some pretty stellar curries too. I would’ve thought I had been transported to a Thai restaurant when the Red Coconut Curry dish was delivered to our table. The presentation had me in absolute awe as the Jasmine rice was stuffed into a raw coconut shell and in the company of one giant bowl of divinely spicy and creamy curry. Filled with tender chicken, crispy carrots and crunchy snow peas with an adornment of red pepper and cilantro, this curry offered a superb variety of color and textural fun. While the curry also had a great depth of flavor, my only gripe is that it was a much thinner broth than what I prefer when eating my second favorite kind of Southeast Asian fare.
Ahhh, back to the real reason I am so devoted to this particular Vietnamese hot spot…those too good to be true, fresh rolls strike again. Only on the dinner menu exists a very special fresh roll assortment. With meats and sauces not available during the day, Bamboozle offers several rolls predesigned for your tasting pleasure. Though one can still create their own roll using a sushi style checklist menu, it is undoubtedly less pressure to trust the guys (and the gals) in the back. Most recently, Chris and I shared three rolls- The Traditional, the Seoul and the Kick’n Chick’n. Served sliced in half and with three sauces matched to each roll, the plate boasted a rather colorful arrangement that insisted an instant snatch of a roll.
The traditional, filled with “prawn,” grilled pork, mint, cucumbers and chives was mediocre. Definitely not one to blow your socks off with an explosion of flavors, I’d pass on selecting it again.
The Seoul was immediately throwing a food fight kind of bash on my tongue. Stuffed with grilled pork, spicy pickled kimchi, red pepper, cilantro and a with side BBQ sauce, it was demanding some serious attention. Insanely delicious.
The Kick’n Chick’n, containing chili chicken, red bell pepper, jackfruit, cucumbers and cilantro with a side of Soy sauce vinaigrette was also rather delightful.
This place truly gets me every time. The food, though simple and causal, is fantastic. Those fresh rolls are one of my great (food) wonders of the world. In fact, I suggest Bamboozle “newbies” start looking at the menu now and allow their creative powers to begin concocting roll combos so they are ready for their first scrumptious visit.
Bamboozle Café not only provides fresh, healthy, and almost always excellent food, they are also are pretty big into a healthy lifestyle initiative. They do what I’ve never, in my life, seen a restaurant do before. They have their very own “fit club” which meets every Wednesday night at 6pm in the café. Though I’ve never participated (shame on me) I have seen them working hard and having a blast at Curtis Hixon Park on several occasions. In other Bamboozle news, there is a brand new location that has just opened on 12th street in the Channelside area. This spot is a tea Lounge, offering most of the original Bamboozle’s specialties in addition to one crazy long list of Boba teas. I know where I am going sooner than later...