When I attended the Michelin Award ceremony in Miami last month, I was surprised to see only one Orlando restaurant, Z Asian, serving food at the reception on the concourse of LoanDepot Park, where the event was held. Then again, seeing as how this was Miami’s gig – Orlando hosted last year at the Ritz-Carlton; they’ll be in Tampa next year – perhaps it was unusual to have even one Central Florida participant.
And the area was well represented by the staff of Z Asian and its owners, Hien Q. Pham and his wife and the restaurant’s chef Huong Nguyen, who operated a food station overlooking third base. Z Asian was invited because it is a Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand restaurant, two years in a row. Bib Gourmand, named for the Michelin tire mascot whose name is Bibendum, designates “good food at a good price.”
The next day, while driving back to Orlando, I was mulling over some choices to go for dinner with some friends that evening. I thought of Z Asian and said, “Why not?” I hadn’t been since the restaurant first opened in 2019, replacing Mai Bistro in the Mills 50 District. And as it turns out, the menu has changed quite a bit.
At the event, Nguyen had told me that she was trying to educate American diners that Vietnamese food is more than pho. In fact, the beef noodle soups that are so prevalent on Vietnamese menus in this country are not so in Vietnam. More often, pho is eaten as a breakfast food than a dinner item.
At the restaurant, Nguyen pointed out some items she thought we should try and we said yes to all of them.
We started with the Crispy Quails, little bits of bird that looked like oversized chicken wings (and frankly had more meat) pan fried and served with a lime sauce. I loved the well-crisped skin.
We also had the grilled New Zealand mussels, served at the Michelin event as Zelicious mussels, topped with peanuts and fried onion bits.
The grilled jumbo squid was revelatory. So unlike the fried squid and sauteed calamari that dominate menus, Z Asian’s was presented looking like a whole lobster, the central part of the body sliced into large rings and the tentacles positioned at the head. Tender, with a smoky taste.
We didn’t go totally soupless (and for the record, there are some phos on the menu). We had the steamed clams in lemongrass. The clams were fine but I enjoyed sipping the perfumy broth even more. (Technically, I don’t think it was meant to be a soup, but that didn’t stop me.)
Pan fried Vietnamese crepe had shrimp, pork and bean sprouts in an eggy pancake, served with delicious pickled carrots and daikons.
The crispy mini pancakes, which Nguyen said was a classic Viet dish, featured little rice cake cups with shrimp nestled therein.
And the pan fried rice flour was best described as an omelet topped french fries, served with a sweet chili soy sauce.
The decor is spartan – there is no drop ceiling and the metal ductwork it at the same level as the bamboo fans. Tables are basic laminate wood but set with cloth napkins and chopsticks.
Z Asian’s Bib award is well deserved – our feast cost a mere pittance. And it’s wonderful to see a Vietnamese restaurant – especially in this neighborhood – elevating the Viet food experience.