About Pho-ing Time
A Vietnamese Restaurant Brings Culinary Life Back to an Old Haunt
It seems like years since anyone's been nostalgic about the bygone restaurants of Sowebo: Gypsy Café, the Telltale Hearth, and Mencken's Cultured Pearl. Mencken's, with its glops of cheap, fun Mexican food and crayons on the table, was the alpha and the omega, the first to open in the early 1980s and among the last to close, almost 10 years ago. Lately, hope and lights have been flickering around Hollins Market again. Zella's Pizza opened last summer, and the old Mencken's space reopened just two months back, with a new Vietnamese restaurant named Baltimore Pho.
The owner here is Jim Collins, who has worked in the Hollins Market area for six years, and Baltimore Pho is his investment in the neighborhood's future. He's done so much right, beginning with bringing in the right people--the gifted Rodney Winkler superintends the front of the house, just as he did for years at Kali's Court, and husband-and-wife Kim-Dung and Carl Robinson, who ran Old Saigon, a pioneering and popular Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney, flew in to consult. Kim-Dung Robinson is also credited with much of the opening menu. She recently turned over the kitchen to Larry Huynh when she returned to Australia.
The old place looks great, benefiting from an infusion of cash and some pretty swell taste. The brick floors and pressed-tin ceilings have been scoured and scraped clean. But instead of filling this space with funk, the new owners went contemporary. It's basically white, black, and red all over. (Where there are black chairs, the chopsticks are red; where there are red chairs, the chopsticks are black.) But if it sounds harsh, it isn't. A scattering of paper lanterns along the brick archways that separate the bar corridor from the dining room warms up the room. It's all kind of sexy, really, and it feels like a place that's better for dates than for a messy group of friends.
The menu is ambitious, with a limited number of appetizers, soups, and salads, but a profusion of enticing entrées--battered shrimp ($14) or squid ($11) with red chile dipping sauce; pork rib or caramelized fish cooked in a clay pot ($11); two versions of whole fish (market price)--a flounder fried crunchy and a fish of the day steamed. Garnished with deep-fried onions, the flounder yields beautiful white flesh, which is to be dipped into a sweet chile sauce. Stir-fried entrées are simple but subtle. Beef cubes in garlic ($14) don't over-rely on garlic for flavor but instead on a complex marinade, and the pieces are served untroubled on lettuce leaves. A red curry chicken with potatoes and onions ($11) has a particularly light touch, with gentle notes of lemon grass and coconut milk.
The portion size will strike some as small, but it's actually the right amount of protein and carbohydrates after you've filled up on a beautiful green papaya salad ($12), gorgeous rice-paper rolls ($5.50), and tight and spicy little spring rolls ($7), which diners wrap with mint and sprouts in lettuce leaves.
But the house's specialty is, of course, pho, Vietnam's beloved entry into international cuisine's meal-in-a-bowl pageant. (The menus, even the logo, remind guests that the classic Vietnamese noodle dish is pronounced "fuh"--but I think if you pronounce "crêpes" with a long "A," you should pronounce "pho" with a long "O".) Consisting of a clear, simmered broth, rice vermicelli noodles, and (most typically) slices of beef, a good pho nourishes and fills you up for the day. It is best known in these parts for there not being enough of it.
Along with the traditional rare and well-done beef preparation, Baltimore Pho offers versions with meatball, chicken, and, sounding an alarm bell for pho purists, vegetarian (all $8 lunch, $10 dinner) and seafood options ($14). Any version is presented beautifully--as is everything at Baltimore Pho--with an artful arrangement of the accompanying diner-added garnishes: fresh basil, bean sprouts, and chile peppers; hoisin and chile sauces; and lemon wedges.
Subtleties of flavor and constituency in pho, like pizza and crab cakes, are worth fighting over. Baltimore Pho's version for me was pleasant, pretty, and filling, but not very pungent. This might bother people who know their pho. Collins and his staff are eager for feedback, so if enough patrons tell them to "stink up that pho," they might. H
Open for lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays.