Ben Thanh, Pinellas Park

The Vietnamese restaurant makes a quiet return to Pinellas Park with a smaller menu but the same excellent fare.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published March 6, 2008

Ben Thanh
4200 62nd Ave N, Suite C, Pinellas Park
(727) 526-3051
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Details: V, MC; reservations accepted; no alcohol
Prices: $5.50-$10.50

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PINELLAS PARK - Ben Thanh is the biggest market in Ho Chi Minh City, a beloved institution that over centuries has been destroyed, relocated, reborn and renovated. Pinellas Park's Ben Thanh is a little like that.

The Vietnamese restaurant opened in 1994 on 34th Street N, but closed in 2002 when chef/owner Susan Nguyen's husband had a stroke. It was a family business, and many family members were fatigued by the day-in, day-out of it all. Like all such grand dames, its departure was mourned.

At the beginning of January, longtime fans were gleeful. Ben Thanh had returned, popping up on 62nd Avenue N in an unassuming strip mall. Why is it back? According to Nguyen's son, T. Tran, it's "because she's a workaholic. That's basically it."

Lucky for us. The former incarnation boasted a vast menu - this time around it's pared back, with a refined array of soups pho and egg noodle, vermicelli bowls, soothing porridges, stir-fries and complicated self-roll entrees.

These last could probably qualify as a hobby as much as dinner: Ground beef comes rolled into little logs, wrapped with grapes leaves and fried ($10.50). An anchovy sauce gives them a zingy kick; tuck these inside a leaf of lettuce, add a handful of fresh cilantro and Thai basil, maybe a little carrot and daikon, a tangle of soft vermicelli. Roll the whole thing up, then settle this package inside a translucent round of rice paper like a loose burrito. These treats-within-treats have that signature Vietnamese marriage of cold with hot, herbal with pungent, fresh and leafy with fried crisp.

Similar flavors coalesce in bo tai chanh ($5.50), an appetizer of thin rare beef with more of that anchovy sauce, a heady whoosh of lime, greens and leaves of mint. Ben Thanh does an admirable job with the familiar - the magical spicy-soothing properties of rare beef pho, $5.50; tiny fried eggrolls on a bed of cold vermicelli kicked up with nuoc cham, $5.50 (nuoc nam is Vietnamese fish sauce, nuoc cham is the sweet vinegary sauce made from it).

Try fresh rolls filled with spicy chili-tinged vegetables, hot sausage and crisp lettuce ($3 for 2), served with dusky peanut sauce. Or take a step wilder with bun bo hue ben thanh ($6.50), a thick vermicelli soup of spicy beef with lemongrass. And to finish? A durian smoothie ($3). Fine, I didn't have the pluck for the foul-smelling fruit, but coconut juice ($2) is sweet and quenching.

The restaurant isn't much to look at, its dining room a handful of simply decorated tables. Still, Susan Nguyen's skills in the kitchen explain why Ben Thanh has popped up again.

Laura Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.