Pho-get About It
A Vietnamese restaurant in Towson is found lacking
Unlike other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food has been slow to create a presence in Baltimore. Before Mekong Delta opened earlier this year, the most visible Vietnamese restaurants had been Baltimore Pho near the Hollins Market and Saigon Remembered on the stretch of York Road just south of Northern Parkway.
The latest addition to this slow growing scene is Pho Dat Thanh, a very modest paean to mostly Vietnamese cuisine, further north on York Road, next to the Recher Theatre in Towson.
Pho Dat Thanh's interior is clean, but not aesthetically compelling. Booths line one wall; adornments are few; lights are bright. It looks nicer than a fast-food place, but it's not quite fine dining, and the food feels much the same way. Nothing we ate was unpleasant or egregiously greasy, but the food here lacks that touch--the deft hand with spice, the clean, green flavors of mint and basil and lime and cilantro, the balance of sweet and salty and fiery, and, most importantly, fragrant--that gives Vietnamese food its verve.
The restaurant's menu is voluminous, often a sign that a kitchen is spreading its talents too thinly. And along with Vietnamese dishes such as pho, clay-pot preparations, and rice crepes, the offerings veer off into other corners of Asia--to Thailand for pad thai, and to China for lo mein, fried rice, and "chowfoon." Appetizers, however, fall squarely into Vietnamese fare, and with the exception of bland summer rolls ($3.75)--all generic crunch inside pasty, chewy rice paper--were more distinctive than main dishes.
Goi tom, Vietnamese shrimp salad ($8.25), boasted a generous serving of shrimp, sliced thinly lengthwise and tossed with shredded onion and cabbage. A heavy dose of citrus gave the dish a fresh brightness, and the serving was generous enough to serve as a light dinner. Bo la nho, grilled beef in grape leaves, ($5.75) was its opposite--a fat roll of dusky, earthy beef with smoky nuances reminiscent of dried fermented mushrooms wrapped in a crackly grape leaf. It was substantial and unusual, and I liked it.
Entrées, however, were less than scintillating. The pho ($6.75) broth yielded a meaty richness, but lacked any spice. Spongy, gray meatballs and an overabundance of noodles added nothing to the dish. Ga kho kung, ginger chicken in a clay pot, ($10.50) was served in a metal pot, rather than clay (it was unclear whether the dish had been cooked in a clay pot and transferred), and tasted only slightly better than it looked (think small, thin tripe-like shavings in a mildly sweet-spicy reddish sauce).
Xao thap cam dac biet, a "house special" stir fry of jumbo shrimp, beef, and chicken in black pepper sauce ($13.95), benefited from a strong squeeze of lime, but could otherwise be shelved under generic stir fry, its flavors muddy and not distinctive. The person who ordered it allowed her leftovers to be boxed up, but it was clear she would have been happy to have left them on her plate.
Service at Pho Dat Thanh is eager, if disorganized. Several staff members waited on us, which may have been why we were allowed to place an order for a rice crepe, even though the kitchen was out or why we had to ask for the small plate of sprouts and basil that usually accompanies a bowl of pho. Still, the night we dined, the dining room was moderately busy, and the kitchen was doing a hefty carry-out business. Pho Dat Thanh also has a liquor license, which along with the menu's reasonable prices, is a boon for hungry and thirsty university students or the pre-concert Recher crowd.