Vietnamese `bubble drink' is a hit

Eats

October 17, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff | Robin Tunnicliff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A milkshake with large, brown gelatinous marbles of tapioca pearls was not exactly the item we expected to like best at An Loi. But it was. And the "bubble drink," as the owners of the tiny Vietnamese storefront restaurant call the shake, was also the only thing we both found outstanding.

An Loi makes the traditional Vietnamese drink by blending fresh fruit and condensed milk, then pouring the mixture over a cluster of tapioca. The six flavors offered range from safe for the American palate (strawberry) to exotic (durian, a fruit that smells like limburger cheese).

We tried mango and were pleasantly surprised by how light it was, given that one of the three ingredients was condensed milk. The drink came with a wide purple straw, so we could slurp up the tapioca pearls that seemed to be there for kicks only.

My companion found the spring rolls top-notch, while I thought the too-abundant dose of vermicelli tasted rubbery. I preferred an appetizer of bo la nho, salty-sweet little pillows of grape leaves wrapped around an unnaturally red but delicious ground-beef filling. He thought the dish was too salty.

I enjoyed the nicely arranged sides of pickled cabbage and carrots that came with both appetizers.

Because we'd heard that An Loi's noodle soups were good, we focused on them.

Each of the soups we tried was a pretty even combination of good and bad. The beef pho (North Vietnamese soup) lost points for having beef that was gristly to the point of being inedible for one of us. Picking the beef out of the tai nam improved that soup somewhat. The clear, reddish-brown broth had a nice floral taste, but the rice noodles that stuck together had sunk to the bottom of the bowl.

An Loi offers egg noodles as well as rice noodles. On our waiter's advice, we got a second entree with egg noodles - a fish-pork soup - and found egg infinitely better than rice. They did not form nearly as many clumps in that broth soup as the rice noodles had in the tai nam. The soup, called hu tieu hoac mi nam vang, was brimming with egg noodles, sliced pork, shrimp, squid, fish cake and fish ball. But for something so full of stuff, the soup tasted very light and clean, the sort of thing that would be great to have when you have a head cold.

One of us found the broth salty, while the other thought it was slightly sweet. Medallions of pork were just chewy enough, the fish balls surprisingly good and meaty, and the shrimp well cooked. We did not see any squid but didn't really miss it.

In terms of decor, An Loi is spare. But there's a warm feeling here, emanating from two very small, candle-lighted Buddhist shrines to property and prosperity.

The servers seemed to know several of the diners, emphasizing that this is a friendly place, if nothing else, to enjoy some hot soup and a cold shake, under the serene eye of the Buddha.

An Loi

Where: 7101 Minstrel Way, Columbia

Open: For lunch and dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers $2.95 to $3.95; entrees $4.75 to 7.95

Credit cards: AE, MC, V

Call: 410-381-3188

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: **

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