I find that a lot of Vegetarian/Vegan restaurants fall into two categories. One is the restaurants that serve mainly vegetable dishes. These may include rich soups, vegetable sandwiches, whole grain breads, pastas and fresh salads. The other is one that models itself after meat restaurants but replaces all the meat with vegetarian/vegan alternatives. Sometimes I dig the first style. Sometimes the second. I really have no qualms about either. My friend D is all about the second style. He loves the fake meats, the tofus, tempehs, seitans of the world. He dislikes vegetables immensely (strange for a vegetarian but true). One of the Tampa restaurants we usually wind up visiting together is Trang Viet.
I’ve mentioned Trang Viet on this blog a number of times before but have never done a proper review. I would say it is the Tampa restaurant I have frequented the most in my time here. This is in large part to the excellent food they have. The food is traditional home cooking styled Vietnamese with a touch of French influence. What you won’t find here is amazing, vegetable based dishes. Most of what they serve from the vegan menu are meat replacements (made in house). I’ve tried nearly everything that interests me on their vegetarian/vegan menu. Some are better than others but I have never left disappointed.
Probably the coolest thing about Trang Viet is that on the second Saturday of each month they offer a vegan buffet. For a flat rate you get a soup, all you can eat entrees served from hot cases and a dessert. I had been planning for months to attend one of these vegan gatherings but always missed the date. In April I was finally able to make it and even after having eaten there 20-30 times in my life, I discovered something new.
To start the buffet, we were served a bowl of soup. It was a slightly spicy coconut tinged version with large chunks of carrots and fake meat chunks. I had never experienced one of their soups before and the smell of coconut left me a bit on edge. But a quick spoonful told me it would be good. In subsequent visits I have found myself scouring the soup and contemplating it. That’s how convincing this version was.
Before the hot food cases came out, I placed an order for steamed buns. These buns are stuffed with imitation ham and they are one of my two appetizer go tos (the other would be the vegetable gyoza). These hot doughy pockets softly dissolve in your mouth leaving the onion and potato taste to linger behind. On this occasion I probably should’ve passed because the vegan buffet was very carb heavy. But, not knowing this, I enjoyed in ignorance.
The Steamed Bun
My ignorance came to a screeching halt when I saw the contents of those metal pans. There were fried rolls (can’t remember what season they came from), gyoza, noodle dishes, mixed rice, stuffed tomatoes and a mixed vegetable dish. D, who had ordered his typical dish because he was scared the buffet would have too many vegetables, would’ve been in heaven. As for me, my stomach was going to fill up quick. I made a mixed plate:
View One of the Mixed Plate
The Hello Fried Roll Shot
I begrudgingly planned on skipping dessert. I had barely survived one, yes ONE, mixed plate of food. But when I heard there was carrot cake, I took a breath and mustered up my last bit of strength. I grabbed a carrot cake and dug in wondering what a vegan version tasted like.
It was AMAZING. So much so that I tried to weasel a second piece but other suspicious vegans keep giving me “the look.” I finally gave up resigned to the fact that I wasn’t getting another one. At least not this time. (Since that visit I have ordered a carrot cake for dessert each time, you gotta enjoy it while you can).
If you are one of those people that base your reviews on the service then you will enjoy this place. I have never failed to get at least four jokes from the waiter as he is a friendly guy with a great sense of humor.
Check out Trang Viet Cuisine at 1542 E. Fowler Avenue.
Sam Vicari is a Chicago based artist who, like Trang Viet, keeps things simple. With a bit of an electric pulse, themes of heartbreak, alienation and Midwestern ennui run through Sam’s lyrics. But it isn’t the tear in year beer type stuff as Vicari also harnesses power pop sunshine hooks made famous by Pinkerton era Weezer. Sam’s second LP “Heart Explosion” is due out this summer. The title track can be streamed below: