"Oh man, it's like a restaurant popped up inside a gymnasium," said my dining comrade the first time we opened the doors to College Park's Blended Café Bar. The eatery is cavernous, jarringly so, and if parquet floors had been laid instead of tile, I would have lamented not bringing my basketball. I can't say plopping a few tables in the middle of the vast open space would help any (might mess with the flow) and, besides, who doesn't like courtside seats? Brainstorming ways to make the interior a little more intimate and a little less Amway Center is an inevitable consequence of dining at BCB. It can consume conversations along the perimeter of the restaurant but, if anything, the space gives new meaning to the term "food court."
Then there are the servings of smallish bites of bao, dumplings, bánh mìs and the like. Small bites + large space = irony not lost.
In some cases, it adds up to big flavor – fried pockets filled with chicken adobo and onions ($5.95 for two), for example. They're empanadas through and through with a made-from-scratch consistency. But serving it with a sweet mustard sauce? Bah, a far better (and spicier) dip could surely be composed. Those pockets, by the way, come in sweet form, too – banana spice, almond butter and jelly, strawberry Nutella and guava and cheese. They pair nicely with a spot of lychee-blended tea ($3.95) – with or without boba or jelly – or a cup of Vietnamese coffee ($4.75), no doubt. Pockets in dumpling ($4.95) form are offered as well, but it's a struggle to find the good in them – crackling hard crust and flavorless chicken filling don't a good dumpling make. But bao ($6.50 for two) gave rise to plenty of praise – the spongy number stuffed with cukes, cilantro, jalapeños, carrots, pickled daikon and lemongrass-teriyaki beef in particular. There are options for the veg bao-hound that don't come across as mere afterthoughts either: crispy jackfruit (resembling bhel puri chips) sauced with sweet and spicy barbecue, for one, and a bao of delicately fried crispy tofu that, for a very brief moment, we mistook for chicken.
On the bánh mì front, the "classic" ($6.25) comprising porky cuts and pâté is listed, but I've never sampled it. On my initial visit, it wasn't even offered, as owners Kathy and Christine Dao were unsure of how the seemingly adventurous sammie would be received in (seemingly) staid College Park. On a second visit, they'd run out. On a third visit, it was offered but with barbecued pork replacing the cold cuts. It's a decent sandwich, yes, though one employing a roll suspiciously reminiscent of the semolina-dusted subs at Publix. No matter; eating it was a pleasure.
During busier periods, you'll likely wait a while for bubble waffles ($5.75) to materialize, but it's worth it. The waffle iron behind the counter fashions the shapely hotcake (think bubble wrap made of custardy batter) which we chose to top with vanilla ice cream, a condensed milk drizzle and passionfruit popping pearls.
In this court of popular opinion, the capper proved nothing short of a slam dunk.