Henry and Phuong Luu are doing things backward. For 25 years they had a food truck in Tampa, a modest affair that roamed the streets near Raymond James Stadium and sold deli sandwiches and such to construction workers. In the past two years the food truck business has heated up in these parts, launching dozens of mobile vendors. Luu's Catering, on the other hand, put it in park, the family deciding it was time to get stationary.
On Aug. 1 they launched Green Mint Asian Grill, a spare and attractive grab-and-go Vietnamese restaurant in the Cypress Point Plaza, which is anchored by Fresh Market. The walls are hung with huge framed closeups of mint leaves; the laminate tables sport a clean bamboo pattern. Fresh white paint in most of the space is contrasted by one bright green wall. And behind the counter the Luus and a handful of young men get busy once you've ordered off the oversized chalkboard.
You've seen much of this menu before. There are boba teas and ice-blended smoothies, the tapioca beads blooping up the fat straw to provide contrast to a thick, sweet coconut smoothie ($3.95) or a subtle iced milk tea ($3.50), both delicious. Beverage choices are hard to make, because there's also a great mint-muddy lemonade ($2.75) and a range of fruit-flavored iced teas ($2.95) that can be made with a green, black or jasmine tea base. On the other hand, the traditional sweet Vietnamese hot coffee ($2.95) is a production, the inky brew getting a lush blast of sweetened condensed milk.
Banh mi ($4.95-$5.25) are spunky and nontraditional, their short, baguette-style rolls extra crusty on the outside and moist of crumb. Into this you can opt for a filling of seasoned pork with housemade pate, or go for the house special version of shredded chicken and assorted cold cuts. My favorite was a grilled beef version, the sweet-smoky meat ably served by accompaniments of pickled carrot and daikon, a thicket of cilantro, rounds of jalapeno and cuke, and a squirt of fish-sauce intensive vinaigrette (all of the sandwiches come with the same accompaniments).
Fresh summer rolls ($3.50-$3.95) and fried spring rolls ($3.75) make for appealing starters, the latter thin fingers of crisp pastry cradling ground pork and veggies, appear again as a topping for the Green Mint bun ($7.50). This is an exemplary version of the cold vermicelli salad that features more pickled carrot and daikon, chopped peanut, bean sprouts, chopped lettuce, a generous flurry of mint and a prototypical nuoc cham dipping sauce. The house bun showcases the spring rolls along with grilled shrimp and sliced grilled pork, proteins that crop up again in a handful of salads ($5.95-$6.25) and lettuce wraps ($6.95), all featuring the same array of flavors and ingredients.
Desserts are limited to a case of respectable macarons ($2.50) made by Clearwater baker Mai Nguyen, their filling flavors indicated by their pale pastel colors.
In an effort to become a gathering place for the community, the Luus and their daughter, Janine, have embarked on monthly cooking classes, begun in September with a sushi-making workshop and hosting a fresh ramen-making class taught by Art Institute graduate Viet Vo.
While neither of these classes is particularly Vietnamese, it hints at the mainstreaming of pan-Asian cuisine. (Janine even said if the ramen class was well received, they might think of adding handmade ramen to the menu — an addition that would be virtually unprecedented in these parts.) And it's easy to see why the lively, healthy flavors of Vietnamese dishes lend themselves to affordable grab-and-go concepts in the Tampa Bay area.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.