With competition rampant, opening a new restaurant can be a formidable challenge; nevertheless, Eugene Yu-Chin and Lisa Huang are plowing ahead with a distinct approach. This brave young couple opened Sweet by Bing Feng in April in the Boulevard Lindora commercial center in Santa Ana, southwest of San José.
Yu-Chin said the idea was to start a coffee shop serving crepes and gelato. But Huang, who loves to cook, wanted to incorporate dishes from her native Vietnam, so the couple decided to add a small selection of Vietnamese food to the menu.
Both Yu-Chin and Huang speak perfect English, having been raised in the U.S. and Costa Rica. Huang used to have a popular restaurant, Cafetería Mediterráneo, in the Quepos area on the central Pacific coast, but she never served Vietnamese food.
While my lunch companions and I perused the menu, we remarked on the attractive, modern, coffee shop-style decor with its black, white and hot pink color scheme, delightful paper lamps and sprigs of fresh orchids on each table. There was no sign of anything to denote the availability of Asian offerings except on the menu, which displays tempting, colorful photos of the few dishes.
We decided to skip the crepes with their variety of sweet and savory fillings such as cheese, ham, Nutella, fresh fruit and whipped cream (₡1,800-2,800/$3.60-5.60). They looked deliciously thin and generously stuffed, worth a return visit to try them and a scoop of Huang’s homemade gelato.
We went straight to the Vietnamese menu, which offers a choice of appetizers: char-broiled pork or lemongrass chicken on skewers, egg rolls and spring rolls. The pork on a skewer was tender and delicious, and the spring rolls made with rice paper and stuffed with bean sprouts, shredded white radish, chicken and perfect small shrimp were served with hoisin and hot pepper sauces for dipping. These wonderful combinations of flavors were a bargain at ₡2,000 ($4).
The two main courses (₡4,500/$9) were not exactly what we expected. The broiled pork pieces where flavorful and served on rice noodles, bean sprouts and grated carrots, accompanied with fresh basil, cilantro and a mild vinaigrette-type dressing. When the diner took a mouthful, she said it was tasty but cold. She felt she had ordered a bowl of salad, and wished the menu’s English translation had pointed out it was a cold dish.
Having spent a month traveling the length of Vietnam and falling in love with the wonderful cuisine, naturally when I spotted pho (pronounced “far”) on the menu, I had to order it. This national soup of Vietnam is sold on every street corner and eaten morning, noon and night, particularly at breakfast. It consists of a strong beef stock with rice noodles and slices of beef cooked in the soup, served with raw vegetables and fresh herbs.
Huang’s pho came piping hot in a bowl with noodles, chopped green onions and thin slices of beef cooked in the broth, accompanied by a side of bean sprouts, cilantro, basil and a slice of lime. It looked like traditional pho, but it was bland and lacked the subtle combination of flavors I had expected. I added a generous helping of salt, hoisin and hot pepper sauce to liven it up.
Huang explained that, like so many other cooks serving ethnic food here, she had had to tone down the ingredients to please Costa Rican palates, which in general do not favor strong, spicy flavors. She assured me she would make me – or anybody else who requested it – the real McCoy next time. So if you want to slurp up a bowl of genuine pho, give her a call the day before you plan to visit this charming young couple and their delightful little restaurant.
Sweet by Bing Feng
Location: Boulevard Lindora commercial center, behind Scotiabank, Santa Ana-Belén road
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.