PINELLAS PARK — Excellent Vietnamese food is so often a thoughtful juxtaposition of textures, tastes and colors. Shaking beef, or "bo luc lac," that luc lac part onomatopoetically referring to the back-and-forth motion you have to make with the pan when you cook it, is a good example. Here, filet mignon is cut into cubes and tossed with salt, pepper, sugar and garlic, then sauteed and given a sheen of dark soy and fish sauce.
This juicy, hot melange gets bedded down with sliced red onion, tomato and greens. Dip a bite of meat in a bowl of white vinegar, or slide it through a shallow ramekin of kosher salt and pepper moistened with fresh lime. A curl of red onion gives it heat, a bowl of fluffy jasmine rice cools it down.
It'll rock your socks at Jade Bistro (a service rendered for $13), as will dishes like this: cold shredded chicken salad ($8), flecked with mint and Thai basil, served next to a crunchy pile of green papaya salad and a scoop of rice. The whole thing — velvety chicken, crisp strands of papaya, herbs — gets drizzled with a rich sauce of chicken liver and ground pork.
Almost all the dishes at Kim Luu's new restaurant are like that, sweet balancing salty or spicy, crunchy pitted against plush. Technically, Jade Bistro isn't new. Luu opened it a year ago as An Ngon, but even regulars had a hard time pronouncing it. An is Vietnamese for "taste" and ngon means "delicious." Bingo. But maybe Jade Bistro rests in the memory banks better.
And it should: Prices are extremely reasonable, service is charming and solicitous, decor is simple but cheerily tidy. Frankly, fancy flatware or lavish wall treatments might distract. You want your full attention brought to bear on a trio of fried spring rolls ($3.50), which you stack with a handful of fresh herbs, roll in a bit of frilly green leaf lettuce and dab in a sweet chili sauce. The filling of pork, shrimp, taro and wood ear mushroom sings.
At lunchtime thoughts turn to hearty bowls of thin-sliced beef pho ($6.95), ratcheted up with fiery Sriracha, or the French/Vietnamese sandwich bahn mi ($3.50 to $5.95); Jade Bistro's best version is a baguette piled with shredded pork and a jungle of fresh herbs.
Dinner lends itself to getting further off the beaten path: A rice flour Vietnamese crepe ($7.95), somewhere between a delicate French crepe and a super-thin omelet, makes a great shared appetizer. Again, wrap it burrito-style with herbs and lettuce, its hot filling of shrimp, pork and wilted bean sprouts a fetching counterpoint.
The menu dips into other Asian cuisines, a few dishes from China, a couple from Malaysia, and a sushi menu they're still tinkering with. Even these other cuisines benefit from the Vietnamese affection for fresh herbs, lime and nuoc cham dipping sauce, which stamp dishes with their own distinctive panache.
Jade Bistro's beer and wine list comes short and sweet, priced sensibly (Bud for $2.50, a bottle of Canyon Road chardonnay for $16), but the more exciting liquid allures appear on the dessert/ beverage list, from a refreshing sugar-at-the-bottom lemonade ($3) to a sultry condensed-milk-thick iced Vietnamese coffee or a strangely satisfying salted, pickled lime juice with soda ($4).
In a tricky time to open a new restaurant, Jade Bistro needs to keep doing what it's doing, making everything an ngon, and it will surely have a devoted following.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.