After a summer long routine of unforgiving heat and thunderous storms, the upcoming cold season can be dark and menacing to Central Floridians. As the temperature drops below our usual 80’s comfort zone, it becomes a common thing to see one or two parkas wandering about the city in search of some respite from the not-so-cold. Fortunately, I have a beloved gem of a restaurant not too far from home to appease my hunger for soupy comfort on those dark, cold nights ahead. It is Thuyen Vien, also known as “the little pho place” amongst my group of friends.
In the 1970’s, hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants sought refuge from the Vietnam war in Orlando, opening businesses and settling in a stretch of Colonial Dr. just north of downtown Orlando, now known as little Vietnam or Mills 50 District. Since then, they have contributed to the community by sharing their culture, food, and way of life with the rest of the Orlando community.
Along MIlls 50 one finds a vibrant array of Asian markets and restaurants that produce some of the most exciting and flavorful food in the area. As is the case with Thuyen Vien, a tiny hole in the wall restaurant that sits sandwiched in a shopping center between a boba tea business and a jeweler. You walk into this unpretentious vegetarian restaurant and you are instantly greeted as you scan the room for an empty seat. The tables are humble dinning sets that look like they’ve been snatched right out of an Ikea catalog. The walls are decorated with colorful Buddhist imagery that entertains the eye as you wait on you food. The best part about this joint is the menu, which is ubiquotously placed in the center of the table and has about 6 items to choose from, all priced $5.
My ultimate favorite is the #1 pho, which is vegan pho in this case. Traditionally, pho is a Vietnamese soup served with beef or chicken broth and rice noodles, topped with herbs and bean sprouts; its vegetarian sister is pho chay. Although pho chay lacks the beefy broth that is simmered with bone marrow over low heat for several hours, this version does not lag behind. An exotic blend of toasted spices ( star anise, cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon) carrots, celery, onions, and dried mushrooms go into the broth that I like to make at home. The fungi bring forth a strong umami taste that creates a memorable broth capable of captivating even the most carnivorous of palates.
And so I sit on an empty seat, right on a corner overlooking the communal garden shared by the shopping center. There’s a rainbow of orchids adorning the greenery and the music emanating from the speakers above melodically spit out chants that lull me into a peaceful state of serenity. My food arrives, and as I take that first whiff of steaming veggie broth, my mouth salivates in anticipation for the delicious meal. It never fails, I have eaten this soup more than 100 times before and every single time I never cease to feel its comforting effects. Specially on a Florida winter day like today.