It makes me think of that Talking Heads lyric: "This was a Pizza Hut/Now it's all covered with daisies/you got it, you got it." Loon Fong clearly started life as a fast-food restaurant. There's what must have been the drive-through window, and inside is an unmistakable order counter. But whatever burger-and-fries excesses lie in its past, it has resolutely moved on to bigger and better things.
Wander in midweek for dinner and you'll notice that many of your fellow diners are Vietnamese. Despite its American roots, Loon Fong has emerged in recent years as a place to get vibrantly authentic Vietnamese dishes, heady with fish sauce and mint and zings of lime and hot chiles. There are the usual suspects (pho soups and bun, those generous bowls of vermicelli topped with meats and veggies), but it's a slick purveyor of slightly more exotic fare as well.
Start with crunchy strands of green papaya salad ($12.95, $16.95) in a sweet/spicy/tangy vinaigrette, studded lavishly with shrimp, pork and flecks of mint. Pair this with an order of charbroiled shrimp paste (way yummier than it sounds) wrapped around sugar cane ($16.95), wrapping each bouncy shrimp bite in a bit of lettuce with herbs and then waggling it in nuoc cham dipping sauce. Afterward, gnaw the sugar cane for a little zap of sweet after the savory.
Around the dining room you'll see families focused on huge tureens, fronds of steam rising as contents are ladled into individual bowls. At first I thought these were spins on pho, the beef broth soup commonly eaten for breakfast, but upon closer spying I found them to be hot-and-sour Vietnamese hot pots crowded with catfish, tomatoes, bean sprouts and herbs (three sizes: $16.95, $19.95, $34.95). There's a spin that features shrimp (same prices) and a splurge version of mixed seafood (the large is $55). It's an interactive meal of dipping and grabbing and seasoning to taste. For something that's less of a commitment, but no less tasty, an order of short ribs caramelized with garlic and fish sauce ($12.95) is tender, with just a touch of sweetness and enough plush fat to make the lowly cut seem positively sumptuous.
You may not get a ton of guidance from servers, but don't relegate yourself to the familiar Chinese offerings of sweet and sour pork or beef lo mein — in a couple of assays, these proved to be fairly pedestrian when compared to the Vietnamese offerings.
And a short beer and wine list (all familiar) pales in comparison to beverage offerings like fresh limeade with club soda ($3), iced French-drip coffee with a swirl of condensed milk ($3.95) or a quenching young coconut drink ($3.50).
Loon Fong isn't much to look at, a big flat screen in the corner blaring something and the decor mostly the kind of casual accretion of stuff that characterizes longtime restaurants. It's come miles from its fast-food roots, but Loon Fong still manages to feed people quickly and affordably with big portions of healthful, herb-bright fare.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter at @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.