Some locals say pho could compete with the likes of the giant turkey leg for the title of “Orlando’s official dish” but, says Hien Pham, this beloved and steamy staple is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine.
“If you go to Vietnam and walk the streets,” says Pham, who, alongside head chef (and wife) Huong Nguyen, runs Z Asian Vietnamese Kitchen in Orlando’s Mills50 neighborhood, “pho is probably not even 5 percent of what you’ll find.”
And so when the pair conceived Z Asian, it was a deeper dive into the nation’s fare they sought to bring to the city, to bridge what Pham says is a large gap in what many Vietnamese restaurants in America serve, and to deliver it in a way that younger generations enjoy and expect. In fact, the Z in Z Asian — recently recognized by the Michelin Guide with a Bib Gourmand distinction — comes from “Generation Z.”
And with the venue’s first foray into Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining, Pham hopes to expose even more locals to unique offerings they won’t find at their local fave for pho.
Z Asian is one of six Michelin-recognized venues participating in Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining this year, and a decidedly indie choice. But what fewer folks in town realize is that the city’s larger hotel venues have loyal local followings, as well.
Four Flamingos, a Richard Blais Florida Kitchen isn’t even a year old, but its predecessor at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, Hemingway’s, was a long time participant in the program — and had a tremendous following of locals.
“We’ve seen an uptick since the Michelin awards,” says chef de cuisine Shelby Farrell, “but we’ve been really fortunate in our local reception since opening.”
Farrell, who’s worked in many hotel restaurants — including Hemingway’s; she was asked back to help open the new venue — says the local reception at Four Flamingos has been better than most, “but even so, the [Bib Gourmand Award] brought more people in.”
The legacy of Hemingway’s, she says, is strong.
“This space has been a part of Magical Dining for a long time,” she says. “We want to continue to garner that local following, to be seen as an independent force and not fall into a hotel niche. Magical is a great opportunity to bring new faces through the door and let more locals experience what we have going on.”
Value, particularly in a place where entrees can fall in the $40-50 or higher range, is a big draw.
“It’s easily a $30 savings or more when you come for Magical Dining,” says Farrell, who notes that while the program may have started as a way to boost sales in a traditionally slow month for restaurants, it has become more of a marketing investment for some venues.
“The month of September is not going to be the one that makes us when it comes to the books, but it is in terms of our future clientele.”
Pham feels similarly, and as such is offering up dishes that really showcase the program’s value while doing the same for some of Z’s dishes, both signature and decadent.
“It’s $40 per person for three courses, and pho is just not pricey enough to give the customer real value, but when you do a version with filet mignon and our fresh-made noodles, that really offers value and something special,” he explains. “Rather than doing a regular chicken red curry, we’re bringing in a good-sized lobster tail. And our Mi Vit Tiem (marinated duck noodle soup) is just really, really good. A very traditional Vietnamese dish and one of the hardest to cook well.”
The jumbo squid appetizer — a killer street-food option in Vietnam — regularly sells for $25.
“We are not looking to profit through Magical Dining,” says Pham. “We’re looking to provide the customer with value and a really nice experience in trying our food.”
At Four Flamingos, the mindset is similar, the new Chef’s Creation element has allowed for some fun play in the kitchen, says Farrell.
“For a restaurant like ours, filet mignon is a little on the high end, price-wise, for us to be able to offer it on the Magical Dining menu, so we were able to create a filet dish that was a little more friendly on our end but still a phenomenal option, which a lot of people are always looking for at Magical — it’s one of the standards.”
The filet roulade features a curried mushroom duxelle, confit potato and a coconut au poirve fashioned with their house blend of toasted peppercorns. a fun, Four Flamingos-style spin on a classic.
“Instead of brandy, we use a spiced Jamaican rum. It might be a filet dish, but we wanted to make sure it wasn’t a cop-out,” says Farrell, with a chuckle. “It’s very much the true experience of the restaurant, it’s still very much ‘us.’”
The Florida seafood moqueca on the other hand, was a chef’s favorite that wound up a surprise star on the menu — with a standard price tag of $39.
“We never expected it to become the hit that it has, but the people who know know. We’re excited to offer it on the Magical Dining menu.”
Fans of Richard Blais know well his prowess in the realm of molecular gastronomy, and those curious can sample the tuna tostada — with its rich passion fruit yolk. Guests should treat it like the real thing, says Farrell.
“You pop it and it runs all over the fresh, avocado tartar-dressed ahi,” says Russell of the app, which generally goes for $23. “It’s beautiful. It’s delicious. And it’s always a showstopper.”
Coming out of comfort zones is standard for many during Magical Dining, where some avid fans like to stretch their experiences. On the heels of the program, Pham and Nyguyen plan on stretching the menu a bit at Z Asian, and with a battery of new faces they look forward to getting to know. Pham’s career is still twofold — he holds down his systems engineer gig at Lockheed Martin even as he runs the restaurant — and Nguyen logged time as a financial analyst in New York before their budding family — and dining experiences abroad — inspired a career change.
Nguyen’s family are experienced restaurateurs, with a history in both Boston and Atlanta. A few years back, their love of food prompted a pivot back toward the family business.
“One of the most rewarding things about the restaurant is that we’ve made so many close friends,” Pham says. “You meet new people and they start off as your customers, but that develops into much more.”
The Michelin designation has helped generate more interest, says Pham, and Magical Dining is something that can prompt more new customers to give them a try.
“We were so surprised about that,” he admits. “There are a lot of excellent restaurants in Orlando. It not only makes us proud, but gives us the confidence that we can do a lot more. We love all kinds of cuisine, and to go out and see what people have to offer.”
Both he and Nguyen — and similarly the team at Four Flamingos — are looking forward to doing the same for the Magical Dining crowds this year.
In addition to Four Flamingos, A Richard Blais Florida Kitchen and Z Asian Vietnamese Kitchen, Magical Dining participants Kabooki Sushi, Maxine’s on Shine, The Ravenous Pig and The Strand were all part of Orlando’s inaugural Michelin selection. More info: magicaldining.com/restaurants.
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