A Trio of Asian Delights in an Ellicott City Strip Mall
IN honor of my natal day, my buddy Smack has orchestrated a tripartite celebration. Happily, the entire three-way centers around food. Unhappily, it requires me to meet Smack at a shopping center in suburban Howard County.
I wait for Smack outside at one end of the Lotte Plaza Oriental supermarket (8801 Baltimore National Pike [Lotte Plaza Center], Ellicott City,  750-9656)--little knowing that she's standing at the other end waiting for me--and watch the shoppers exit with carts overflowing: stalks of lemon grass, gallon cans of soy sauce, wooden crates of oranges bearing the legend dragon pearls, fruits of legendary quality. A man crossing the parking lot stops and bows to a woman sitting in a car. As much as she can from within her vehicle, the woman bows back.
Eventually Smack and I spot each other and enter the store. We buy an Asian pear ($1.29) many times the size of the Bartletts we see at other supermarkets, this one swollen and a soft shade of brown. In the hot-foods-to-go section we salivate at the sight of Korean sausage and fried dumplings (each $5.99 a pound). Pig stomach ($4.99 a pound) shares a glass-fronted case with seasoned and fermented flounder. Signs are in Korean, with English translations below.
Entranced, we wander the aisles. Foot-long Chinese eggplant the soft blue of lilacs (79 cents a pound). Gobo stick ($2.99 a pound). Kimchi and beef blood by the gallon, packaged pork uteri in the fresh meats section, live sea cucumber and something called "belt fish" (three feet long, narrow at the ends and wide in the middle) in the enormous seafood section. Pickled ginger, garlic, and scallions. Fish sausage, long and thin, the pink of Double Bubble. Banana-chili sauce.
By the time we cross the parking lot to House of Asia (8815 Baltimore National Pike,  480-5100), we're famished. There's a pleasing simplicity to the Thai/Vietnamese restaurant's décor, which seems, to a greater extent than at other restaurants, a reflection of the cooking.
Our appetizers are cases in point. Veggie pho ($3.50) provides a light take on the traditional Vietnamese soup, if a somewhat misleadingly named one (there's no meat in it, but the broth is still beef-based). The bowl of mildly flavored broth abounds with fresh mint, basil, bean sprouts, and cilantro. Chunks of barely steamed broccoli make it healthy; rice noodles make it filling. Even better--and more of a pleasure--is the Vietnamese golden crepe ($7.95), a meal-sized crispy pancake folded over a filling of shrimp, tiny squares of chicken, bean sprouts, and spring onion. The sweet-and-sour sauce nuoc mam comes on the side, but the crepe is wonderful without it, both soft and crunchy in every bite.
We haven't mined the Thai side of the menu yet, so we opt for a main course of pad khing ($9.95 with chicken, $2 extra with our choice, duck). The roast duck, stir-fried with carrots, baby corn, and straw and black mushrooms in a ginger/mushroom sauce, is marvelously tender and infused with fungal flavors. Ginger predominates, though, and only the rice can hold the resultant mouth-tingle in check.
Our Vietnamese entrée, grilled lemon- grass beef ($10.95), consists of seasoned, marinated flank steak cut nearly paper thin and grilled, served atop rice noodles. Garnishes of cucumber, carrot, and bean sprouts add color and crispness. The beef is meltingly tender, redolent of smoke and lemon.
We haven't saved room for dessert, of course (do we ever?), but it's my birthday, so we must have it-- not at House of Asia, but next door, at the Korean-French bakery La Boulangerie ( 203-2000). Here, cheek by jowl, we find classic madeleines ($1.95 for two) and rolls filled with green-bean paste and cinnamon ($1.45 apiece), pound cake with walnut and pistachio ($2.95) next to sweet red-bean pastry (95 cents). (Later, our friend Collin, Chinese-Canadian on his dad's side, vouches for the authentic goodness of the bean-paste items.) Smack and I share a package of almond cookies (two for $1.25), which she pronounces outstanding. We're less than wild about the banana sponge cakes ($1.95 for two), except I like that they're shaped like bananas. At home, we will separately enjoy a multicolored sponge confection called rainbow roll cake ($1.95), a bun filled with hazelnut cream (95 cents), and an oddly addictive, poorly translated treat ($3.95 for five) that turns out to be corn-bread muffins stuffed with kernel corn, onions, and bologna. (I know you don't believe me. Just try it, OK?)
Smack and I end the night as we usually do, over cups of coffee, savoring the evening's sights and smells. Next time I'm out Ellicott City way, I'm snagging some dumplings and a few of those Chinese eggplants. Oh, and a brace of the bologna muffins.
Lotte Plaza Food Store: Open 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. House of Asia: Open 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. La Boulangerie: Open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.