All Pho One
An Loi Brings the Beautiful Broth to the Burbs
It takes a pretty sizable carrot to get my ass down among the bland yet confusing culs-de-sac of Columbia, but Vietnamese food is one of the few lures large enough. Baltimore is bereft of really good Vietnamese; once or twice a year the craving gets so strong I make the pilgrimage to Arlington, Va.'s Little Saigon to sate it. So I was genuinely excited when a friend of a friend reported finding fantastic Vietnamese at a little strip-mall joint called An Loi. If it turned out to be anything like this guy promised, my drive time for authentic pho would be cut in half.
Initial indicators were not promising. The other culinary bastions in this particular strip mall are Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Burger King. But there was one very good sign, literally--neon letters in the window spelling out the three-letter word that's music to my appetite: p h o. It turns out that An Loi is basically a noodle house, specializing in the likes of pho (noodle soup), bun (rice-vermicelli soup), and mi bo sate (sliced steak in sate soup with peanuts and egg noodles). Only a handful of items on the menu don't swim.
Noodles are so important to Vietnamese cooking that they even make their way inside spring rolls. I was very happy to see that An Loi offered more than just the usual cha gio ($2.95), crisply fried rolls stuffed with vegetables and shrimp and/or pork. We tried an order of these out of curiosity, but while An Loi's version is done well--and served with lightly pickled carrots, cucumbers, and cabbage, which we especially enjoyed--it's still pretty much your standard spring roll. They came with a tepid rice-wine-vinegar dipping sauce that added no flavor. I wished instead for the classic accompaniment nuoc cham (spicy fish sauce), which was also absent from the table condiments (sriracha chili sauce, a tub of chili paste with garlic, and soy and hoisin sauces).
Far better were goi cuon ($2.95), summer shrimp rolls. Each roll contained two jumbo shrimp with thin-sliced pork, cellophane noodles, lettuce, and mint leaves. Unlike the usual spring rolls, these are not fried but served cold, the precooked ingredients enveloped in a soft rice wrapper. The dipping sauce was a fantastic peanut concoction thick with chopped nuts and swirled with chili paste; taken together, the rolls with the sauce epitomized the Vietnamese fondness for texture (the crisp-tender coolness of the rolls) played against intense flavor (the rich spiciness of the sauce).
An Loi offers nine kinds of pho, from classic chicken noodle soup (pho ga) to complicated bowls such as tai nam gau gan sach, made with five different cuts of beef. Any pho bowl is $4.75 for a small or $5.25 for large--which is plenty large. I went for the house soup, pho An Loi, curtly described as a "special combination with rice noodle." It included slices of medium-rare eye round steak, well-done brisket, and plump beef balls, plus chewy strips of tripe and soft tendon. (I truly enjoy tripe--its resilient texture adds a dimension lac-king in pho's usual soft, slippery ingredients, as do the cartilaginous tendon pieces--but those who do not the more unusual parts of the cow should inquire before ordering.) The best part of the bowl was the mild but complexly flavored broth, a truly masterful concoction. A plate of cold garnishes--Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and sliced jalapeños--provided additional texture and flavor as well as contrast between hot and cool, cooked and raw. Absolutely terrific, the best pho I've had in years.
Bun bo hue ($5.95)--sliced flank steak and rice vermicelli in a spicy beef broth--was also excellent. Many small bits of ingredients--tiny slivers of carrot, chopped cilantro stems, lemon grass and scallion shreds--contributed to the overall flavor, but none so much as the oily orange swirl of chili that floated on top, mixing in and then extricating itself again. The heat level was moderate at first, but deceptive--just enough to cause some perspiration about halfway through the bowl.
An Loi doesn't offer much in the way of dessert, but it does have fun and fabulous bubble teas ($2.50-$2.95). Also known as pearl teas, these drinks/desserts are ubiquitous in much of Asia and increasingly popular over here. (Until recently, their stateside encroachment was pretty much limited to West Coast cities with large Asian immigrant populations.) Bubble tea is a thick, milky concoction served over enormous black beads of cooked tapioca (the beads get their dark color from cassava root and brown sugar); a superwide straw allows you to suck up the drink and the chewy tapioca at the same time. An Loi offers a version much like Thai iced tea with tapioca, plus many fruit-based flavors like mango and red bean and--for the truly adventurous--durian. Bubble teas are an odd beverage, but they're instantly addictive--beware!
That's using your noodle: Dishthis@hotmail.com.