In the window, leaning jauntily on its kickstand, is a weathered retro bike with a conical paddy hat slung over one handlebar like a vintage prop from Apocalypse Now. It's just about the only old-looking thing at Fusion Bowl. Opened Jan. 19, this charming pan-Asian breakfast and lunch quickie spot is presided over by the young and adorable Michelle Vuu and Bao Lai. With a spare, Ikea-inspired design, pretty chalkboard menu and hipster soundtrack, it feels fresh and dynamic, a notable improvement over the bedraggled Cuban cafe most recently in this spot.
Hardly newbies in the restaurant business, Vuu (Chinese) and Lai (Vietnamese) met while working at Vuu's family's Edo Japanese Steakhouse in St. Petersburg. They are going head-to-head with nearby Bamboozle Café, offering a core of Vietnamese dishes (bun, pho, banh mi) but drawing in some Japanese go-tos (udon bowls, teriyaki rice bowls, gyoza), then topping that off with some East-West weekend brunch items (waffles, bacon-wrapped soft-boiled eggs).
Fusion Bowl reads like a coffeehouse, with those mad-scientist vac pots and brewing paraphernalia against one wall and a cluster of leather couches and chairs against another. Indeed, the Viet-French drip coffee ($3.50) is notably good, but the array of hot and cold teas are also worthy of consideration, from a blueberry green with a beguiling herbal-fruity note to a hibiscus peach that makes a quenching-tangy iced tea (all teas $3.50).
Vietnamese food aficionados will be able to point to places in the Tampa Bay area where the banh mi are cheaper (Saigon Deli) and punchier (okay, Saigon Deli again), but in general the portions are generous, lunches run about $10 and flavors are very clean.
Desserts ($3.50) are scary good, from ginger ice cream studded with tiny clods of zingy candied ginger to smooth and rich red bean ice cream or chewy Japanese oddities called mochi (imagine a frozen squidgy Hostess Sno Ball in flavors like mango and green tea). On one visit they also had delicate crispy packaged tea cakes that paired beautifully with a brawny French drip.
But before dessert, the lunch: Banh mi offered with the traditional meat medley ($5.95), lemongrass chicken ($6.95) and grilled pork ($6.95) seem to be in demand as takeout orders wrapped tightly in paper. The smartest route is the breakfast banh mi ($4.50), which marries the floral cilantro high notes and pickly veggie flavors with sunny-side up eggs in a crusty baguette — guaranteed to make Monday morning at the office feel at least like Thursday.
Pho ($7.95-$8.95), on the other hand, are recommended as dine-in options, the pretty dining room crowded with downtown workers trying not to splotch their ties with pinky-orange Sriracha-tinged broth. Wide bowls come with the traditional accessory tray of bean sprouts, jalapeno, lime, basil and red onion, the sliced eye of round version and meatball version both savory and rich.
Fat, slithery-chewy udon noodles are still something of a rarity in these parts, a satisfying lunch of which features the noodles stir-fried with long tiger shrimp and tufts of surimi ($10.95) along with red onion, cilantro, scallion and bean sprouts, all with just enough soy slick to give the finished dish a satisfying umami flavor.
Fusion Bowl is an order-at-the-counter, sign-on-the-iPad, free-Wi-Fi-while-you-wait kind of place — in other words, very urban 2015. Sometimes servers find you and deliver food, other times you have to listen for your number to be shouted out. That part of it still seems like a work in progress, but Vuu, Lai and their small team are invariably cheery and solicitous.
Weekend brunch is just gearing up, and dinners are a glimmer on the horizon. For now, though, Fusion Bowl adds yet another solid lunch option for downtown Tampa workers.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.