A Terrific Meal? Just About

DINING OUT

January 17, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Hoang's Seafood Grill, 1619 Sulgrave Ave., (410) 466-1000. Open every day for lunch and dinner. MC, V. No smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no. Price range: appetizers, $2.95-$4.95; main courses, $5.95-$14.95.

Considering the proliferation of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai eating places, you'd think we'd have more than one Vietnamese restaurant in Baltimore. Now, with the opening of Hoang's Seafood Grill in Mount Washington, we do.

Technically it's a "pan-Asian" restaurant, but owner Nghia Hoang is from Vietnam, and most of the dishes on the menu are Vietnamese. The dishes that are supposedly Chinese or Thai won't be like any version you've had before. And why get pork fried rice when you can have such exotic fare as basil mussels ("hot 'n spicy") or beef simmered in coconut milk with roasted peanuts, carrots and potatoes?

Some will think Hoang's is a bit pricey compared to other Asian restaurants. That's because the dishes are meat- and seafood-heavy, unlike many Asian cuisines; you should compare the prices with those of places that feature American food rather than Chinese or Thai.

A lot of what we tried was terrific, beginning with our first courses. Starters are limited to a few Asian tidbits and some intriguing soups. On a wintry evening, Hoang's dumpling soup is a must-have. It's the chef's take on the classic won ton, but it bears little resemblance to the Chinese soup. The tiny dumplings, made from Japanese gyoza wrappings, are filled with ground shrimp, and the broth is made from duck as well as chicken bones. Fragrant lemon grass permeates it.

Vietnamese spring rolls will surprise you: The chef starts with a shrimp, tail and all, and stuffs it with ground pork, crab, vegetables and fresh ginger. Then the shrimp are wrapped in a rice skin and deep-fried. Instead of duck sauce, you get a fish-stock-vinegar-garlic sauce for dipping.

Good as they were, we liked chicken Mishu even better -- four little rolls of marinated sliced chicken sparked with fresh ginger and scallions, wrapped in rice paper and fried. The result is a hot, flaky bite that you dip in more of the vinegar-garlic sauce.

For our main courses, we put ourselves in our waiter's hands. He recommended Hoang's seafood grill, a mixed-meats grill that isn't on the menu, and pho xao, a Vietnamese noodle dish.

According to our waiter, grilled foods are traditionally eaten over room-temperature rice noodles with pickled vegetables and more of the ubiquitous dipping sauce. The soft, bland noodles and the crisp sour-sweet slices of carved radish and carrot are sensational with the smoky flavor of the perfectly grilled seafood (supposedly shrimp, scallops, salmon and squid, although we got no squid and only one piece of salmon). Lemon grass, fresh ginger and garlic figure prominently in all these dishes.

Of the grilled meats, the best was the chicken, juicy and tender, although I liked both the honey-glazed pork and the beef. My only regret with ordering the sampler was that we didn't get the various accompaniments that are on the individual grills: orange sauce with the chicken and fried onions and peanuts with the pork. What you do get, typical of Vietnamese cuisine, are beautifully arranged plates with elegant lettuces and decorative vegetables.

Hoang's offers several noodle dishes, and they shouldn't be missed. Somewhat reminiscent of Thailand's pad Thai, the delicious pan-fried rice noodles are handsomely arranged with sauteed vegetables, shrimp, beef and chicken.

When Vietnamese food is hot, it can be blazingly, searingly hot; I liked the fact that none of our dishes was, although we did run into a spark of red pepper here and there. But if you do like your food fiery, I can report that the woman at the table next to us was weeping and panting over the heat of her shrimp dish. Ask your waiter's advice.

As for dessert, Hoang's knows American tastes. You won't be limited to fortune cookies and ice cream here. Try a tiramisu cake, with the ladyfingers drenched in custard and rum, or a three-chocolate mousse cake.

Hoang's is a pretty restaurant, with a small dining room and sushi bar downstairs and a larger room upstairs. The downstairs room is bright and cheerful, dominated by the sushi bar and a large pastry case showing off decidedly un-Vietnamese pastries. Upstairs is romantically dark, with the main light being candlelight. The decor is simple, almost stark -- an Oriental fan here, a plant there -- but the rooms are handsomely carpeted, freshly painted and appealing-looking.

Isn't there anything wrong with this restaurant? Not much. It doesn't have a liquor license, so you'll have to bring your own. It's not the cheapest Asian restaurant you can go to in the city. And the jasmine tea is made with a tea bag. That's about it.

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