Viet-Thai combo is a winner

April 05, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VIETNAMESE and Thai food are two of the world's greatest, and in the Baltimore area, there's no better place to sample both than House of Asia. The elegant restaurant tucked in Ellicott City's Lotte Plaza Center has fine examples of each cuisine.

Owners Nina Song and Paul Pham opened their second restaurant here eight months ago largely because they could get fresh ingredients from the large Asian grocery store across the parking lot. (Their first, Nina's Espresso Bar, is located at Centre and Calvert streets in downtown Baltimore.)

The couple went for a combination menu at their new eatery because Thai and Vietnamese dishes use many of the same ingredients. Where the cuisines diverge is in seasoning; Thai dishes tend to incorporate lots of peppers, while Vietnamese food is more delicate.

Because few places around Baltimore offer Vietnamese food, most of what we ordered came from that side of the menu. House of Asia's rendition of pho was outstanding, a fragrant beef broth loaded with small noodles, crisp bean sprouts, tiny basil leaves and thin slices of steak. Don't be afraid to use the lime wedge on the side; it blends well with the mixture.

Vietnamese dishes combine ingredients that few Westerners would ever consider mixing. So, it is a good idea to ask questions here about what's on your plate, or else you could miss out on a dish's true complexity. Take the grilled lemongrass beef, for example, served atop small mounds of vermicelli with tomatoes and coriander. Most Westerners think the latter two items are a garnish, said Song, when in fact they're meant to be eaten with the meat.

Vegetarians get good treatment here. An entire page of the menu is devoted to meatless entrees. We tried a Vietnamese dish called mi xao don do chay -- stir-fried vegetables served with crunchy noodles. It far exceeded what we expected. Tender bites of carrots, baby corn and mushrooms blended well in terms of texture with the thin, nutty-tasting noodles.

House of Asia's Thai dishes packed some serious heat. The sum tum papaya salad surprised us because the papaya lacked any fruity sweetness, and the spicy lime dressing had far more fire than lime. The lime flavor came through loud and clear, however, in plar goong, an appetizer of grilled shrimp seasoned with lime leaves, onion and scallions.

Portions are not skimpy. There was more than enough pho left over for a second meal (a bargain at $6.95). And the bank xeo golden crepe appetizer could easily serve as an entree. Inside the thick, fluffy crepe were tiny bites of shrimp, pork, onions and sprouts that had lost none of their snap during the cooking process. A small cup of peach-colored nuoc mam -- the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce -- added a nice sweet-sour touch.

With House of Asia offering large portions of delicious food, dessert doesn't need to play a prominent role here. But we were tempted by a dramatic flaming banana dish that was devoured by the large group next to us. By the time we got around to ordering something sweet, however, the chef had left for the night. Ginger and green tea ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce couldn't begin to compete with the pyrotechnics.

Visually, House of Asia is as pleasant as its food -- and far better decorated than the average suburban strip-mall eatery. Silk prints of Thai dancers hang on the faux-finished pink walls. In the background, Asian music plays loudly enough to be interesting, yet quietly enough to disappear when the conversation gets interesting.

The only thing lacking was consistent service. Our waitress seemed distracted, passing us by without a glance until Song intervened to get the ball rolling. This underscored why there was a "help wanted" sign posted at the front.

If House of Asia attracts the attention it deserves, many hands will be needed to wait on the crowds.

House of Asia

8815 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

410-480-5100

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Wednesdays through Mondays

Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $7.95; entrees $6.95 to $23.95

Credit cards: All major cards

Food: * * * 1/2

Service: * *

Atmosphere: * * *

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