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Dueling cuisines bring more to the table

A new restaurant on Henderson Avenue adds more spice to a block dominated by Vietnamese businesses.

By MICHAEL CANNING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002

We see it all the time in our competitive American marketplace. A Walgreens goes in catty-corner to Eckerd. "Coming soon, Wendy's," just down the street from McDonald's.

But a much more low key tit-for-tat has unfolded on Henderson Avenue. Banh Mi Ba Le Vietnamese restaurant recently opened not a spring roll's toss from Dong Phuong, a 16-year South Tampa favorite for Vietnamese cooking.

And don't be so quick to apply an American cultural perspective on the situation. People from both eateries say there isn't any competition. Some Dong Phuong customers, while lunching there Tuesday afternoon, didn't even know of Banh Mi Ba Le three doors down.

"It's not a competition," said Banh Mi Ba Le co-owner Thanh Le. "It's just a good location," because the block has long been frequented by Vietnamese.

Aside from Dong Phuong and its adjoining Asian food and specialty market at 3636 Henderson Blvd., the block is dominated by Vietnamese-owned businesses. Sharing the same strip with Banh Mi Ba Le is Kim-My Alterations and Nail Elegance. Number One Travel agency is across the street, owned by relatives of the family that runs Dong Phuong.

"It doesn't bother us," said Le Tuan as he took lunch orders behind the counter at Dong Phuong Tuesday. "They have their customers; we have our customers."

The two restaurants are small, family owned, and concentrate on cuisine from the southern part of Vietnam. But Le sees differences between his place and Dong Phuong. "We do a different style of cooking," he said, mentioning dishes prepared at the table like hot pots and seven star beef.

Le added that there's also a difference in clientele. "A lot of Vietnamese don't eat (at Dong Phuong). It's not very traditional.

"The American people that eat here, they really know Vietnamese food."

Competition or not, Dong Phuong regular Hill Graham says Banh Mi Ba Le "has their work cut out for them. Phuong's is established. I love it. It's simple, but it's elegant. They're consistent, and priced fairly."

B.T. Nguyen, a veteran local Vietnamese restaurateur, doesn't think this situation is quite so laissez-faire.

"I do think that it is a direct competition," she said from her Cafe B.T. on Gandy Boulevard.

She figures she knows a turf war when she sees one. Her cafe shares a wall with a former Chinese restaurant that morphed into Indochine, with a menu similar to B.T.'s, two years ago. "I have customers mistake them for me quite often."

"We're like the Italians," Nguyen said of the local Vietnamese restaurant scene.

"You don't do that to each other."

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