By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Xuan "Sing" Hurt, 29, and Lynn Pham, 30, grew up in the Tampa Bay area, both in Vietnamese families with avid home cooks. They wondered why the healthful, fresh and flavorful cuisine of Vietnam wasn't better represented by local restaurants.
"We love to dine out. We decided a couple years ago that South Tampa needed something different and full of flavor," Hurt says. They felt downtown was especially in need of an energetic outpost of what they're calling "Vietnamese fusion."
If the long lines at the 6-week-old Bamboozle are any indication, the women should always trust their hunches. Downtown is smitten — most impressively, even those who wouldn't know pho from bun are lining up. It's Vietnamese quick-service in all its vibrant, punchy glory, but served up in a way that's accessible and not intimidating.
Step in line and order from the board. Fresh rolls ($2.25) are customized to suit, a water-moistened rice paper round cradling vermicelli, green leaf lettuce, chives and mint, and then whatever you point to. Choose four veggies (bean sprouts, vinegary daikon and carrot, cucumber, and maybe a few lengths of jicama?) and a meat (lemongrass beef, or maybe bouncy steamed prawns?), then watch as the agile-fingered women behind the counter wrangle it all into a tidy roll. The "sauce bar" offers up dunkables like spicy Sriracha, sweet/salty nuoc mam, or a sophisticated ponzu dipping sauce.
Three rolls add up to a meal at lunch, but then you'd miss the vermicelli bowls ($6.95-$8.95), the same roundup of veggies, fresh herbs and meat choices, sprinkled with tiny salted shrimp and roasted peanuts, over which you pour a bit of fish sauce-spiked nuoc mam. Daily specials further muddy decisionmaking, with a fabulous chicken curry ($6.95), thin and studded with potatoes, or the France-meets-Vietnam banh mi barbecued pork sandwich ($5.95) on crunchy baguette.
With all this, sip a zingy housemade ginger ale ($2.50) or a lush Vietnamese sweet coffee ($2.50). Spare, no-nonsense decor means animated voices ricochet across hard surfaces, creating a lively party-time atmosphere at breakfast (beignets, coffee) and lunch. Dinner service is in the plans for Bamboozle, and downtown Tampa can't wait.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.