Tampa restaurant review: Downtown's Bamboozle Cafe is on a roll

Jasmine rice, presented in a hollowed-out coconut, is a match for red curry.

You know how your mother– wink, wink — used to hide your peas under the mashed potatoes? Well, restaurateur Lynn Pham delivers a similar deception at Bamboozle, beguiling diners with vegetables, lean meats and seafood served fast and fresh.

“We want to ‘bamboozle’ you into eating healthy and not be intimidated by Vietnamese cuisine,’’ she says.

Three years ago, she opened this downtown eatery when she wanted to get out of a stagnant career. “I wanted to do something I was passionate about,” says the Saigon native who serves Vietnamese food with a twist, such as a number of fusion fresh rolls.

My not-to-be-denied craving for fresh rolls, no matter which vegetables, noodles and herbs go into these translucent-rice paper, stop me in my tracks. Bamboozle’s “Traditional’’ rolls, for instance, offer winning grilled pork and shrimp with mint, accompanied by a mild, mahogany peanut sauce. “Cali’’ features K-crab, jicama and jackfruit, brought to life with a vinegary, sweet and spicy, chili sauce. There’s also coconut and pineapple “Coco,’’ sesame pork and kimchi “Seoul,’’ pickled daikon and shallot “Savory Tofu,’’ and mango, basil and glass noodles “Sesame Veggie.’’

“In my home we would have platters of poached prawns, herbs, vegetables and rice paper for everyone to craft their own rolls for a nice dinner,’’ says Lynn. She turned to her mother’s recipe for its rich, beefy broth pho. This broth, flavored with star anise, cinnamon and coriander, is different than others because it shuns MSG additives, she explains. We can all thank Lynn for sparing us a day-after pounding headache. Pho stews all day before a last minute teaming up with noodles, cilantro, sprouts, jalapenos and basil.

Grilled pork, shrimp and mint flavor a traditional fresh roll

A brothy, red curry had depth of flavor, but suffered from an unwieldy slab of chicken that could not be handled by my spoon. Its jasmine rice, however, presented in a hollowed-out coconut so I could scrape my spoon against the sweet flesh, was a marvel. Lynn asks her chef to whack open all the coconuts with a butcher knife.

“I’m too clumsy and would probably lose a finger,’’ she adds.

Banh xeo, a crepe with a millimeter-of-crunch, gets punch from pork, sprouts, and onions, and is served with pickled daikon. Although not a part of the tabletop décor, as in other Vietnamese restaurants, an individual portion of chili sauce is readily available.

The thought process behind the Vietnamese name may be shaky but the food isn’t, unless you order Shaking Beef. This tender pineapple, tomato beef would be at home in any fine-dining venue.

For a simple, small, storefront, there is a devoted fan base, even on a recent weeknight. The café uses little dairy and caters to vegans and those on a gluten-free diet. Little desserts, banana and coconut tapioca, mini-beignets and fruit ice cream, spare the guilt of a final indulgence.

Bamboozle Café
Where: 516 N. Tampa St., Tampa
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 to 3:30 Sat., 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mon. through Sat.
Way to Pay: MC, DC, V, Discover
Drinks: Beer, Wine, Sake
Call: (813) 223-7320
www.bamboozlecafe.com

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Mo’ Greek: Enjoy a steak pita with roasted garlic sauce, and a side of Greek potato salad at the new, Mo’ Ziki, (http://eatmoziki.com/) a fast, casual café in Largo. Find it in the Promenade Bardmoor Center at 10801 Starkey Road, Largo. The “Greek-inspired’’ dishes include pitas, wraps, salads and Hellenic rice bowls that can be customized with any combination of protein, veggies, and signature tzatziki sauces.

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Hold the chips: If in London in October, check out Thomas Keller‘s 10-day pop-up restaurant. Named “The French Laundry at Harrods” it will be a replica of his famous Yountville, CA destination, right down to the flown-in fixtures, fittings, and dinnerware along with a dozen French Laundry staffers. Read more.

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