Z Aisan Vietnamese Kitchen is one of the latest to join the Mills 50 lineup of eateries in what is historically the center of the city’s Asian community. For a long time, each new Vietnamese restaurant that opened in the area seemed no different than those that had come before. The menus were the same, which is to say voluminous and repetitive, and even the decors seemed cookie cutter and stereotypical.
But that’s started to change in the past few years. Menus are more thoughtful and aren’t intent on presenting every possible combination of ingredients. And even the restaurants themselves seem more modern and up to date.
One restaurant that I thought did a nice job of modernizing the Vietnamese dining experience was Mai Bistro, which opened in late 2017 and unfortunately closed in early 2018.
Now Z Asian has moved into the same space and it, too, offers a more modernistic approach to the Vietnamese dining experience while still paying homage to the traditional recipes.
Z Azian is a full service restaurant (Mai Bistro was quick-serve). Whereas many of the old-school Vietnamese cafes have more than 100 items on their menus, Z’s is a two-pager with classic hits. It does offer a build-your-own-pho option, so technically it has as many variations as some of the neighboring tomes, but at least you don’t have to wade through them all.
Of the actual phos, which is to say the beef noodle soups, only five options are offered, including including the one designated P1 — the Special.
It might also be called the Meat Lover’s Pho, or maybe the Beef Parts Lover’s. It had eye round steak, flank steak, brisket, tendon and tripe in a rich and delightfully fatty beef broth. The steaks were sliced thin and added still rare to further cook in the hot broth. The tendon had a nice chew. The broth had a perfumey note, perhaps the cilantro and star anise playing together. The usual accouterments of bean sprouts, lime wedge, jalapeno slices and basil were offered to add at will. The rice noodles, of course, were a challenge to eat with the chopsticks and ladle-spoon, but I wouldn’t try it any other way. (The couple at a nearby table asked for knives and forks to eat their phos. )
Western utensils might have — just might have — made the Marinated Duck Noodle Soup that I had on another visit more manageable. I don’t think I’ve ever had a dish as difficult to consume as this one.
It featured a mass of egg noodles submerged in the large bowl. The noodles were reminiscent of the block of ramen noodles that come in a package and they couldn’t be persuaded apart. Couple that with a duck leg quarter that one either had to stick apart or pick up and eat with soggy fingers. It also included large chewy shiitake mushrooms and baby bok choy. That the duck broth was wonderfully unctuous was the soup’s saving grace.
For an appetizer I tried the Pan Fried Rice Flour, which featured rice flour cakes that looked like fat fries tossed with eggs and scallions. Unusual but tasty, especially with the soy dipping sauce.
Servers were friendly and helpful. The dining room is large and has an industrial look, with exposed ductwork, bare wood tabletops, metal backed chairs and wood-look flooring. Large photographs in black and white with selective flourishes of color lend an artistic touch.
The Z in the restaurant’s name, I was told, was meant to indicate a Generation Z of younger people who may not know the cuisine’s heritage. This seems like a fitting bridge, whether it’s to the past or to the future.
Z Asian is at 1830 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-601-6024.